WHAT purpose do rape scenes serve on screen? Are they necessary to plot points, when most of the studies show their harmful impact and how, as Laura Hudson wrote in Wired in 2015, they feed `into real-life misconceptions about sexual assault that are often used to deprive rape survivors of legitimacy or justice`? I thought of this while reading the reactions on social media on Monday about a new drama, Hadsa (incident), which is/ isn`t based on the gang rape of a woman in September 2020.
I asked my editor if I could write about why dramas need to show sexual violence against women and what impact fictionalised stories of realincidents have on societal attitudes, but then this controversy took a new turn and Hadsa was banned.
Before writing this piece, I watched a few episodes before weighing in. Hadiga Kiani plays a progressive, strong-willed, fierce female role I rarely see on TV. She`s an unapologetic feminist. She is sexually assaulted on a motorway, and I understand how upsetting that must be to the survivor of rape, who reached out to a journalist to share her anguish. There is no responsible way to showrape.
The producers and Kiani have denied their drama is about the motorway case, but many folks are not buying it.
This provided an opportunity for debate on a host of issues regarding the portrayal of sexual violence and its survivors, and how much agency a survivor has to their stories being made public. Should audiences be warned about content? Should such content be aired at a particular time? Many Western crime shows on TV are often based on real life, and come with warnings about the nature of content, and issue an `all persons fictitious` disclaimer.
The American show Law and Order SVU has fictionalised famous cases, from Dominique Strauss-Kahn to Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson to the 2015 case of a Stanford student assaulting a girl when she was unconscious. I appreciated the decision by the producers of Delhi Crime not to show the sexual violence committed on `Nirbhaya`, the name given to the woman gang-raped in 2012. The true crime genre in audio and documentary is hugely popular.
None of this prepares anyone for seeing a sliver of a resemblance of themselves on screen.
Rape should never feel like entertainment on screen. We must condemn shows where the use of sexual violence is exploitative and gratuitous. The entertainment industry has profited from the pain of survivors all for the sake of ratings or public awareness, when it`s just regurgitating terrible tropes and stereotypes, like whether a wom-an`s choice of clothing provoked her rape.
However, as problematic as such storylines are, aban is not a response. This enforces a regulator`s control on people`s choices. To shield folks from pain and trauma, many progressive voices have landed in the same camp as the right wing, which routinely call for bans on content that does not adhere to their moral code. To those who lauded this decision, know it is a temporary win. The same tools will soon be applied to other storylines that supposedly harm Pakistan`s image in the world.
Also, rapists (and their protectors) as well as censors do the most harm to the country`s image.
If and when rape survivors speak up, they are punished for doing so. The legal system is stacked against them, they are portrayed as victims and powerless. `If you survive, you have to prove it was that bad; or else, they think you are,` Roxane Gay wrote in her book Not That Bad.
I know from my time in the newsroom how hard it is to get staff to report onthe sexual violence manner, minus words attached to honour and minus judgement. It is frustrating to get them to just use the word `rape`, especially when we have adapted so many English words into our reporting. There is much work to be done.Perhaps the drama industry needs to own up to its failings. They can read the massive amount of literature on how fictionalised rape scenes impact survivors and audiences. One in three college men in an American 2015 study, for example, said they would rape women if they knew they would not face consequences. Here, not everyone is willing to agree on the definition of rape.
I think rape can be used to make a big point about Pakistani society, but I think we should close the lid on rape as a cinematic subject. This should not be confused with me calling for a ban. Bans serve no purpose.
Just like rape scenes serve no purpose. What does serve purpose is complaints, critiques, pressure groups, calls for, and conversations with, filmmakers, artists, educators, journalists to do better. Even the feminist mother in Hadsa could have done better but I`ll never know whether she did. The wúter esearches newsroom culture in Paldstan.