A Very Pakistani Scandal

A Very Pakistani Scandal
The dictionary describes a scandal as ‘a situation or event that is thought to be shocking and immoral and that everybody knows about’. In this light of this, what could be a very Pakistani scandal?

This phrase comes from a 2018 British television drama, A Very English Scandal, featuring Hugh Grant, directed by Stephen Frears. The story is based on true events from the 1970s - a scandalous relationship between British politician Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott, a young man who claimed to be his former lover. The series delves into the web of intrigue, corruption, and political manipulation that ensues as Thorpe tries to conceal his relationship with Scott. This amounts to the abuse of power, violation of trust, and the extent to which people can go to protect their reputation. It’s not just a question of religious or sexual morality – it’s about trust, justice and what the society disapproves of. In the same vein, in a Danish TV series, Borgen (2010- ), a politician commits suicide out of mortification, when his sex scandal with a young man is discovered. This is set in a supposedly ‘free’ society in Scandinavia.

If you happen to dart upon a scandalous story in some British newspaper, they often start like this: the father of a 14-year-old girl was discovered having an affair with such and such, or a public office holder brought shame to his community by taking a bribe, or the mother of two was found indulging in promiscuity, and so on. Implying that such individuals compromised their social, parental, or official position – denoting a violation of trust, which that position and stature demanded - amounts to a scandal.

English literature is brimful of such examples. Scandals are at the very heart of English society. Meaning that the English society is too conscious of moral correctness and social reputation.

Read Jane Austin, for example, when Lydia elopes with Wickham and Darcy saves the Bennets from eternal shame by getting them married. Or a little earlier, read Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock, where he chides the morals of the upper classes, where ‘At every word a reputation dies.’ In Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, we again experience the hypocrisy of the upper-classes and the way past actions come to haunt an individual, incurring social disapproval and shame. Sir Robert Chiltern, a respected politician, is seen as the embodiment of moral rectitude and integrity, admired by society for his principled stance on public matters. However, his past is not as pristine as it seems. Mrs. Cheveley possesses a letter that reveals Sir Robert's earlier fraudulent financial dealings, putting his reputation and career at stake. She uses this leverage to blackmail him into supporting a fraudulent government scheme that would benefit her own interests. But more importantly, these revelations jeopardize his relationship with his wife, who finds it unacceptable to live with a man lacking integrity.

Notes on a Scandal (2006) – set at the heart of the English society - is about the moral and professional compromises of a high school teacher, Shiba, who establishes a sexual relationship with one of her students - a 15-year-old boy. All hell is let loose when the secret spills out, ruining her life and of those related to her. Her 16-year-old daughter cries in pain, the husband goes mad, and Shiba herself collapses under the burden of abasement. Hanif Kureshi explores the complexities of moral corruption through intense sexual encounters of a married woman with a stranger in his film Intimacy (2001), directed by Stephen Frears. Questions are raised as to how society deals with this kind of situation; how reckless adventures can bring disaster to the individual lives. The list of such films and literary works produced in the West is exhausting.

Even the political sphere in Western societies is fraught with such stories from the recent past. In the USA, Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky nearly cost him his presidency. In the UK, David Cameron’s father’s evasion from paying taxes brough his political career to an end. And more recently, his libertine days at Oxford brought public shame upon him. In France, a sex scandal ended the career of the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn in 2011. All these matters are scandalous by mainstream Western standards.

In Pakistan, such matters are hardly worth any scandal. How many times have we heard of someone renouncing their loved one for financial swindling or other malpractices? In a Pakistani TV commercial for a refrigerator, a wife rather disdainfully taunts her husband for not being able to grab some money through fraud to be able to buy a new refrigerator, as she believes her neighbor’s husband did. Sex scandals involving politicians and public office holders in Pakistan are conveniently dismissed as ‘personal matters.’ Punishment over financial fraud is unheard of in this country. Changing political loyalties are acceptable as the way of realpolitik. Leaked sex videos of politicians, judges and other celebrities are circulated on social media, and nothing happens - no disapproval is cited. They are enjoyed as entertainment. People would probably die of shame in the sexually emancipated societies of the West over such leaks, as we can see in the films and literature produced in those countries.

So, if we look out for a scandal in Pakistan, there is nothing worthwhile – whether that is financial corruption, debauchery, infidelity, fraud, libertinism, and so on. Pakistani screens are loaded with exciting matters: extra-marital affairs, love affairs within close family - brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, fathers-in-law, nephews, nieces. These television dramas have seldom caused any vexation among the audience.

Imagine what kind of outrage even a slight hint of blasphemy can cause in this country? And then ponder, why such themes of immorality and wantonness in Pakistani dramas have never generated any strong response from our society? One cannot help but conclude that there is tacit acceptability for such matters in this society – they are rather a source of entertainment. Equivalently, fraud and corruption in the political arena are hardly a matter of social rebuke, when it comes to having personal relations with such knaves – people would rather like to get connected with them on a personal basis.

We make perhaps serious errors in our understanding of what it means to be open-minded, liberal, and westernized. We need to explore these concepts before using them as tags.

The author holds a PhD from the University of Glasgow, UK. He hosts a political talk show on TV and appears as a political commentator in TV shows.