Insult to injury | Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Insult to injury

By: Shagufta Naaz

Once upon a time Ramazan was all about feasting and fasting; when PTV marked the holy month with melodious naats and hamds and clerics engaged in meaningful debates. When alms were given in secret and charity was practiced with humility.

And then came the media circus.

If anything sells more than morning show wedding blasts, it’s the 30 days of iftar and sehri fests. From self-proclaimed doctors to ‘reformed’ actresses, everyone is an authority on religion and everyone has their Ramazan show. There are prizes to be won, free iftari to be devoured and oodles of religious information to be had for the asking (in fact, you don’t even have to ask.) For those who prefer more drama, there are tears to be shed, sins to be confessed and forgiveness to be bestowed. But even all this is not enough to garner the highest ratings so the powers that be have to bring in something that simultaneously plays on our sympathy, our sense of horror and our fascination with another’s misery — the same voyeuristic instinct that draws crowds to the scene of an accident or unfortunately to bizarre incidents women being paraded semi-clothed in villages — is what makes ‘reality shows’ such a hit.

Those of us who grew up watching TV in the 80s may still remember coverage of the Ethiopian famine. While bombarding the world with images of starving children, emaciated bodies and hopeless eyes may have helped raise aid and awareness, Unicef is now questioning the ethics and validity of what they have termed ‘hunger or poverty porn’ — exploiting a person’s pain and suffering even for a worthy objective. Sound familiar?

While the international community wrestles with these moral issues, our local channels have cheerfully taken the concept and turned it into an art form.

“Meri behen maazoor hai” (My sister is handicapped) lisped a cute eight-year-old at one of the most popular iftar shows recently which was a cue for the beaming host to bound over to the girl sitting propped up in anticipation. The mother gave a blow-by-blow run down of her daughter’s infirmity; the camera delivered heart-wrenching close ups of the severity of the problem and the host graciously promised to help raise the money for the required treatment. Allah be praised.

One host asked a man to lift his shirt so the audience could get a close look at all the unsightly scars left behind by surgery; another propped up a young boy with missing limbs on a high stool so we wouldn’t miss any details. The host famous for chasing couples in a park asked a mother how it feels to know that her child is dying… and instead of turning off their TV sets in disgust and boycotting the channels, people call in by the hundreds with promises of financial assistance, expressions of sympathy and truckloads of advice. Pity at its best.

We take pride in being one of the highest charity giving nations in the world; our welfare organisations thrive solely through the generosity of our people; our poor, at least in urban centres, fare better than many in other poor countries. But does our charity come at the cost of another’s dignity? Charity fills the void because there is a complete lack of basic human rights to health, education and housing. Do we have an inherent need to feel sorry for others on a daily basis as a validation of our own relatively fortunate circumstances and is our pity tinged with a sense of relief that we have been spared a similar fate? Perhaps not for 335 days of the year, but come Ramazan and it seems our sympathy needs to be titillated by an ever increasing dose of what we may call poverty porn.

While our clerics rant and rage at the fahashi on TV and Pemra cracks down on song and dance some may say that the most vulgar antics are carried out in the name of religion and charity. By turning a person’s deepest miseries into a sideshow for our evening entertainment we not only strip them of their dignity — we send out a message that help is available to those who are willing to be party to this crass exhibitionism. In this way we diminish the grit and determination of those who deal with adversity on their own terms and encourage a victim mentality cult. Perhaps it’s time Pemra realises that the most offensive content on TV often comes garbed in a shining white duppatta or a sequinned silk sherwani. And it’s way past time our TV hosts remember that discretion is the better part of charity.