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Interview: ‘Pakistani Dramas Need To Stop Portraying Women As Damsels In Distress’

Osman Khalid Buttt
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Actor Osman Khalid Butt has come to be known as one of the (very few) progressive voices in Pakistan’s entertainment industry. From openly calling out misogynist trolls online for their anti-women remarks to standing with women of the #MeToo campaign, he has always lent support to the women empowerment cause without mincing words.

In an exclusive interview with Naya Daur, Osman Khalid Butt talks about the rampant misogyny in our entertainment industry and beyond – and what all can be done to end it.

“Internalized misogyny is rampant not only in our industry but the society as a whole. Women are criticized for things which men can easily get away with. Gender-based stereotypes are so deeply inculcated in us that we often unknowingly practice misogyny”, he says.

When asked if the entertainment industry can help change narratives in this regard, Osman says the industry is already doing its bit by trying to work towards ending inequality. “Our job as artists is to also educate and reform.”

Reforming the drama industry

Osman admits that Pakistanis dramas often glorify rape culture and portray women as damsels in distress which further strengthens the very patriarchal notion that we need to fight, but adds that some positive work has also been done in the past few years.

“We have had dramas on issues such as child abuse, rape etc which were meant to serve as conversation-starters. The young producers and other new entrants to the field are passionate about making a difference, and they are trying. But we still have a long way to go”, he says.

In response to a question, Osman says we don’t have gender-sensitivity training and the educational curricula do not promote critical thinking either, which is why most women rights issues are considered taboo and there is a tendency to not raise voice against [anti-women] violence.

Patriarchal notions hinder inclusiveness

Osman further says that the society cannot become inclusive and equal until women’s sufferings are considered serious enough to merit organized action.

“When a woman faces domestic abuse, she is told that it happens at every house and we see it as a private matter. The victim is discouraged from opening up about her ordeal because it would bring dishonor to her family. Thus, the society expects and encourages a woman to suffer in silence. This notion is normalized and then carried out throughout our lives, and any woman who dares to challenge or violate it is seen as evil. This is what we need to change if we are to build a tolerant, more inclusive society”, he says, adding that such discussions should take place at college and school level as well.

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Handling (and educating) moral policers on social media

Women celebrities are often on the receiving end of online backlash whereby trolls resort to personal attacks and moral policing for their choice of clothes or lifestyle. Osman says he engages with such people whenever he can to try and teach them how they’re wrong.

Actor Mehwish Hayat was recently awarded the Pride of Performance award by President Arif Alvi on Pakistan Day, after which she received a great amount of hatred by people who suggested she “slept her way” to the award. Osman was one of the few actors who came out in her support and gave a shut up call to the trolls.

“You have all the right to question the jury’s choice or even say that a recipient did not deserve the award but if your line of argument is that she slept her way to it, you’ve already lost the argument”, he says.

#MeToo: ‘There’s no stopping the movement now’

Talking about the high profile case of #MeToo in the industry when Meesha Shafi accused singer Ali Zafar of harassment, Osman says it is disappointing that women’s stories of harassment are immediately nullified.  “It takes a certain amount of courage for a woman to speak up when she is subjected to sexual harassment. Her opening up is actually a cry for help. The least we can do is lend a sympathetic ear without asking judgmental questions like “what took her so long?”

The actor says he believes in due process, but Ali Zafar has been accused of harassment by multiple women and the allegations cannot and should not be ignored.

Osman says there was silence from the industry bigwigs following the allegations leveled by Meesha Shafi because within our industry there was confusion over what feminism is. “Among other things, the reason for this confusion was that a lot of women in industry had made vague and misleading statements about feminism”, he explained.

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Referring to actor Sanam Saeed’s comment in an interview where she said feminism should not be about ‘men-hating’ and ‘bra-burning’, he said the industry at the time was focusing on extremes and some did not know how feminism also covers pressing issues such as workplace harassment, equal pay, equal opportunity etc.

“But following the wave of #MeToo in Pakistan, people who were unaware about the feminism movement are now gaining more knowledge. We are having conversations we never had. Actors now debate behind the scenes among themselves about the issue of sexual harassment in the industry and the #MeToo movement. Whether or not the conversations are ‘informed’, the issues that were considered taboo are now being openly discussed, and that is the biggest achievement of #MeToo”, he says.

Osman however adds that substantive changes in attitudes take time. “It took Hollywood years to acknowledge the problem of sexual harassment. I am hopeful that Pakistan’s industry will also get there very soon. That we have started to have conversations about the issue means the first step in this regard has been taken. There is no stopping the movement now. It will only grow stronger.”

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