PEMRA’s willingness to chastise ‘Udaari’ for ‘offensive’ scenes is hampering the fight against child molestation.
Udaari, a drama serial inspired in part by the serial sexual abuse of dozens of children in Punjab province, is being accused of obscenity and vulgarity by the state media regulatory authority due to its unflinching examination of the abuse of minors in Pakistan.
Pakistan has a long, troubled and largely unspoken history with the sexual abuse of minors. Societal pressure to retain family “honor” prevents many parents and children from reporting molestation—and allows innumerable harassers to escape punishment. Udaari hopes to change this.
Co-produced by private channel Hum TV and microfinance lender Kashf Foundation, with a grant from the Canadian embassy, Udaari revolves around the marginalization of women in Pakistan. The 20-episode serial—of which five episodes have already aired—aims to tackle deeply rooted issues such as child labor, sexual abuse and rape. On Tuesday, less than a week before the sixth episode airs, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority issued a notification demanding Udaari’s producers justify “unethical” scenes.
The “offensive” scenes depict a pedophile attempting to molest his orphaned niece and his teenaged stepdaughter. The two-page notification, which has been seen by Newsweek, claims outraged viewers have flooded PEMRA’s official Twitter account and helpline with complaints about the show. The show-cause notice also alleges that parents are upset that the serial portrays Pakistani culture in a negative light and could damage the country’s image abroad. These allegations are misguided, says co-producer Roshaneh Zafar, managing director of the Kashf Foundation.
“We did not violate any law,” Zafar tells Newsweek. “PEMRA is a respectable organization, but its objections are not based on facts.” According to Zafar, each script is reviewed multiple times to ensure potentially delicate topics are handled with sensitivity and care. “Nothing we have shown so far oversteps that [PEMRA rules],” she adds.
“The Pakistani audience is ready for a change,” says Zafar, defending the controversial plot. “They are tired of watching typical dramas about mother-in-law and daughter-in-law conflicts or those that show victims being forced to marry their abusers. This show hopes to initiate a dialogue and debate on the issue.” Udaari’s director, Mohammed Ehteshamuddin, agrees. Talking about sexual violence is needed, he says, even if it is uncomfortable.
Pakistan has made recent strides in its battle to safeguard children. Following an exposé last year of a group of men serially molesting and recording videos of children in Kasur district for over a decade, the Senate in March passed a bill outlawing assaults on minors. Perpetrators can now face imprisonment of up to seven years. Previously, the law had only criminalized rape despite thousands of annually reported cases of sexual abuse of minors.
In 2015, according to NGO Sahil which deals exclusively with child sexual abuse and exploitation, an estimated 3,768 cases were reported, an increase of 7 percent from the previous year. Most of the molesters were either related to the children or were friends of their parents.
In a recent episode of Udaari, a 17-year-old girl informs her mother and uncle about a neighbor’s attempt to harass her. While the uncle rubbishes the story—much like the viewers complaining to PEMRA—the mother defends her daughter. “That is an important message we want to convey. Children don’t lie. We should not trust our children with anyone,” says Zafar.
Despite the PEMRA warning, production for the show is continuing. Hum TV and Kashf Foundation say they will provide a joint response to the media regulator and have encouraged the show’s creators to stick to their vision. “We are confident that PEMRA will understand our point of view,” says Zafar.