Regulating the new woman

Salman Adil Hussain sees TV serials like Zindagi Gulzar Hai promoting a new Pakistani woman - one equally at ease with modern urban life and the dictates of tradition

Regulating the new woman
Rich boy meets poor girl. They clash at first, only to fall in love later and to live happily ever after. This basic plotline of the popular TV drama serial Zindagi Gulzar Hai (2012-13) is one very familiar to South Asian viewership. But, there is more to the show than masala entertainment. At its best, the serial provides keen commentary on the class structure of Pakistan and, in some ways, even contests social norms. At worst, the show is simply a repackaging of the overtly preaching shows of yesteryears that taught women morality and respectable behaviour. In any case, Zindagi grapples with the anxieties of living authentically in a rapidly changing world. In recent years, Pakistan has seen rapid growth of its large cities and a burgeoning urban middle class. Concurrent with this capitalist urbanisation has been the decades-long process of the Islamisation of the Pakistani state and society. These processes converge in a discourse of morality that seeks to discipline women, and this is what we see in Zindagi Gulzar Hai - specifically, in the show’s positing of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women as a way of addressing the anxieties about the mixed up contemporary world of the urban viewer.

But, why pick on- and apart - a TV serial? Isn’t it just entertainment? I think not. Following scholar Humeira Iqtidar’s distinction between secularism as a project and secularisation as a process, I conceptualise Islamisation as a political project, connected but distinct from Islamisation as a social process. While these two formulations can be mapped onto a divide between the state and society, they are not mutually exclusive. Grasping the feedback loop between the two is crucial. Such a reading of popular cultural materials like Zindagi Gulzar Hai helps understand these processes and the emergent social formations - in the case of Pakistan, of Islamised capitalist patriarchy under the hegemony of neoliberal and authoritarian discourses.

Director of the series, Sultana Siddiqui
Director of the series, Sultana Siddiqui

The show depicts two families - one elite and the other lower middle class

To give an outline of Zindagi Gulzar Hai: the show depicts two families from different class backgrounds, one elite and the other lower middle class. The main protagonist, Kashaf, lives in Nazimabad, a lower class neighborhood in Karachi, with her two younger sisters and her mother. Her mother, Rafia, is a principal at a local women’s college. Rafia’s husband had separated from her and married another woman in order to have a son. Zaroon, the male lead character, lives with his family in an elite neighborhood of Karachi. His father is an industrialist; his mother is active in NGO work; and his sister spends her time roaming around the city with her friends and fiancé. Their socioeconomic backgrounds have shaped the outlooks Zaroon and Kashaf have towards life. They both write a diary at night and through these scenes we are told that while Zaroon sees life as a bed of roses and himself as a happy-go-lucky guy who is nonetheless a high achiever, Kashaf sees her life as a bed of thorns and herself as a struggler and ultimately unworthy of success.

The two families are similarly contrasted. If Kashaf’s family is beset with issues of scarcity that are exacerbated by her father’s absence from the household, Zaroon’s family faces issues of excess, of money but also of women’s emancipation symbolised by the absence of his mother from family life. In other words, one family lacks financial resources and the other “proper” and “traditional” “family values”. If the first suffers the consequences of the ‘daqya-noosi’ [backward] traditional notions about son-preference (the reason why Kashaf’s father left her mother to marry another woman), the second suffers from the ‘extremism’ of modernity epitomised by the mother receding from policing the daughter and thereby from safeguarding the ‘family honour’. Both families are broken in that the patriarch is absent - physically in the case of Kahsaf’s family, and emasculated in the case of Zaroon’s father by his excessively modern, westernised, liberated wife. The worlds of these two families come into contact as both Kashaf and Zaroon take admission in the same private, elite university.

Lead character Kashaf is depicted coming from a background of relative poverty
Lead character Kashaf is depicted coming from a background of relative poverty

Zaroon is quite unhappy with the women of his family, with women of his class in general. In the second episode, in a diary-writing scene, he has this to say:

“I don’t understand what women seek to gain by putting men down. Can they only gain equality by subordinating men? Being an independent woman should not mean being contrarian to men in everything, and to provoke men to be rude and aggressive. Or may be Asmara is right: I am a chauvinist. It is better to be a chauvinist than being a slave to women.”

Zaroon’s father reinforces this strand of thinking at a dinner conversation scene in the third episode, when Zaroon’s parents discuss whether or not his father should have questioned his daughter Sara about what she wears. His father is adamant that her attire was inappropriate and her clothing may get her in trouble with her future in-laws. To this Zaroon’s mother responds that she cannot raise her daughter in a way “that she becomes akin to footwear for her husband.” At this point Zaroon chimes in: “Dad’s right, mother. This is not about becoming a doormat for one’s husband. Even I think that women should dress appropriately.”

Promotional image for 'Zindagi Gulzar Hai'
Promotional image for 'Zindagi Gulzar Hai'

"I am a chauvinist. It is better to be a chauvinist than being a slave to women." (Zaroon from the series)

A few scenes later, we see Zaroon’s mother leaving the house for Malaysia. Zaroon approaches her to ask where she is off to. He complains that she hadn’t informed him of her trip abroad. She responds that she had informed his dad, and notes that even his dad doesn’t question her like he did. She tells him:

“Sometimes you talk as if you are a typical man, a typical man from the Stone Age, that if a woman goes anywhere, she does so only after having informed the men-folk, after having asked for their permission, and after having obtained their permission; and a man, meanwhile, can go wherever he wishes.“

The series is based on the novel of the same name by Umera Ahmed
The series is based on the novel of the same name by Umera Ahmed

Then at night, when Zaroon’s father returns, he is shocked to find that his wife is not home. Meanwhile Sara is also not home and neither of the men knows where she is. Zaroon cancels his plans for the night to stay home with his dad, and the two have a heart to heart, male-bonding moment in which Zaroon asks his father how he had managed to live and stay married with a woman such as his mother who does not keep him company after he returns from work. Zaroon urges his father to restrain his mother: “You should reason with her that she make time in her busy schedule for her family.” The dad responds, “Well, she’s a good person.” Zaroon says that she is, “but her priorities are misplaced.” His father responds that he doesn’t waste time trying to do things that are futile, and that in any case it is pointless to try to control your spouse. He reasons that he does not want to force a woman to fulfill the responsibilities that are hers just so that he could have his say. He continues: “Look, your mother is not a bad woman. She is, however, an idiot who, for the sake of being very independent, gave up on those things that make one happy and on those moments that become memorable.” With a wry smile on his face, Zaroon says: “If I were you I would have caused a lot of problems for my wife.”

Zaroon grows more assertive and aggressive. In the next episode we see him disciplining his sister for returning home late at night (the same time that he did) with her fiancé. “You know how bad things are in Karachi. Neither mother nor you are ever home. And then, what would the servants think about you if you were to come home with Farhan so late at night?” When she retorts that he has become very conservative, he responds that he is only concerned about her image, “ […] especially your image in servants’ eyes. Don’t you know the kinds of things they talk about when they are out and about?” At this point she reminds him that he has returned home at the same time as she, and wouldn’t the servants think badly of him as well? She insists: “And don’t you dare say that you are a man, and so, your image will not be tarnished.” Zaroon replies: “Yes, Sara, I am a man, and in our society I can do absolutely everything and no one will care. It makes no difference to my public image, but what you do does make a difference to yours.”

His next outburst is directed at Asmara, his girlfriend and fiancée-to-be, about her clothing in the seventh episode. She tells him that he has no right to chastise her for wearing what she likes. But he says that he is right, in that she cannot wear such clothes to the university: “Do you even know what guys say afterwards?” He is hurt that she denies him the final say in what she wears. We see him then discussing this matter with his sister who reminds him that he already knows “that Asmara is very liberal and so is her lifestyle.” Zaroon responds: “I am not conservative either, but there should be a limit to everything. Women should carefully think about what they wear. Else, afterwards they complain about being harassed […]” We see yet another moment where Zaroon does not want Asmara to accompany him to an event, which he deems inappropriate for her to go to. He wouldn’t take a woman of the family (or his girlfriend) to a place, “where those present are up to no good.” Once again his double standards are pointed out, this time by Asmara - that it is fit for him to do certain things that he deems inappropriate for women to do.

Zaroon finds his girlfriend Asmara's 'Westernised' lifestyle far too unsettling
Zaroon finds his girlfriend Asmara's 'Westernised' lifestyle far too unsettling

The malaise is widespread among the elite men. Whereas Zaroon’s mother is very carefree about the comings and goings of their daughter, Sara with her fiancé or friends, Farhan disapproves of Sara’s male best friend. Once married, Sara does not yield to her husband’s authority and in this her mother again supports her. Sara eventually gets divorced, ends up with severe depression, and - here’s an instance of the show’s central problem - comes to the conclusion that her mother should not have supported her defiance. This then leads to Zaroon’s monologue in another diary-writing scene about the ravages of women’s emancipation and the excesses of feminism:

“I have not been able to understand women’s emancipation. Feminism; the liberated woman - all such concepts are beyond me. According to such concepts, the woman who is not willing, at any cost, to make compromises and adjustments in order to make and maintain a family and a household, such a woman is free; the woman that disavows all such restrictions that are necessary for her own survival, such a woman is free. Such a concept of freedom is very dangerous to a man such as myself. At the end of the day, how can I stop Asmara from becoming such a woman when this concept holds sway in my own family?” 

Zaroon tries to rein in Asmara and to control who she can and cannot see. He is unsuccessful and she goes to Dubai with her friends for a week without informing (or rather asking) him. This is reason enough for Zaroon to call off his engagement. This cements Zaroon’s view that young women of elite society are lost to emancipation because their mothers, like his own mother, have raised them that way and moulded their families in a way that defiance of male authority within the house has become normalized.

Zaroon's sister Sara finds herself being 'disciplined' as to what is 'appropriate' by her brother and later her husband

Kashaf, the "new traditional woman" represents a cross between the pious middle class and a Westernised liberal elite

What would heal this family? The show’s answer is: middle-class morality, one in which women earn and work outside wearing a chador, but without compromising on their responsibility of providing labour to sustain life within the confines of char-diwari (the home). In short, the ‘Chador and Char-diwari’ project of General Zia-ul-Haq, reconfigured for the 21st century of privatisation and neoliberal globalisation. We see in the eventual marital union between Kashaf and Zaroon (between the liberal elite and the “traditionalist” middle-class) a class alliance emerging, as the ranks of the former are increasingly peopled by what may be described as the pious bourgeois.

Saadia Toor’s analysis of the famous ‘Saima love marriage case’ shows how the Pakistani state manages ‘moral regulation’ through the discourse of cultural authenticity, and by designating women as the repository of culture. Therefore, exerting “control over women’s sexuality (and in some cases men’s) becomes a constitutive feature of state formation.” If the middle-class Muslim home is considered, in the words of Amina Jamal “as a symbolic national model and as a bastion in the cultural battle against the West”, and women as the repository of national culture and honour, the women who do venture outside the home are rendered foreign (outsiders to the national home) and construed as threats to the nation. Their transgression is “in some way mapped onto the unwelcome and undue influence within Pakistani society of the ‘upper-class woman’, understood as ‘Westernised’ and therefore degenerate” (Toor, 2007). Anxieties about ‘proper upbringing’ of children, that we see Zindagi Gulzar Hai grappling with, are all the more pronounced in a context where middle-class girls “are just entering the developmental project of the nation-state through access to modern education, employment, and media” (Jamal, 2010).

Zindagi Gulzar Hai represents these anxieties in a rapidly modernising urban milieu where notions of modernity and authenticity are continually (re)defined.  Upward class mobility and consumer capitalism stand in for the much desired progress and modernity. These desires however raise fears about the decline in familial morality and recession of patriarchal norms that the elite women in Zindagi represent. This contest between desires for modernity and fears of moral decline is resolved by the disciplining and control of women with the aim of producing a neo-traditionalist woman that upholds patriarchy even as she ventures outside the norms of purdah (traditional seclusion of women) to pursue education and employment. This “new traditional woman” does double labour: she works outside the house to earn money, in addition to doing the work of social reproduction (such as care-work and raising a family) within the house. Kashaf, the “new traditional woman” represents a class alliance of sort between the pious middle class and a Westernised liberal elite - a role model held up for both middle and upper class women. Through her the elite family is healed and rejuvenated. All of the women in the elite family come to realise that they had gone too far. They all then become ‘good’ family women as they start deferring to male authority. They see that Kashaf cooks for Zaroon even if the couple has a chef at home. Zaroon, a man-child who remains so, is said to have become more “responsible” after getting married to her. Kashaf’s family, on the other hand, earns the respect of her neighborhood as a result of her powerful job and wealthy marriage. Taking care of Zaroon makes Kashaf less cynical, less bitter about the world, and less militant. And, of course, she accepts her husband’s authority towards the end of the serial, announcing in her last monolog that it is not that bad, after all, to give in to him.

Despite this defeatism of the initially militant woman lead character, the serial’s politics is, however, emancipatory and feminist in certain ways: it pushes against son-preference, and affirms the right of women to be educated, employed, and assertive - albeit within the conservative norms of present-day Pakistan. However, that it ends up contrasting good women to bad women is very problematic. If Kashaf’s stepmother is the bad woman who stands for passé and ancient traditions, the Westernised elite women of Zaroon’s household have gone too far with the new, the modern. The show’s answer lies in ‘moderation’: being neither too forward nor too backward. Muslim moderation is, after all, one of the most influential discourses of the era of the Global War on Terror too, is it not?

That all women in this show eventually embrace the patriarchal order of things is disheartening, to say the least. Umera Ahmed, the author of the drama has indicated in an interview with The Indian Express that she crafts characters that are believable and realistic: “I don’t pander to the Mills & Boon romance. Having said that, male characters are pivotal, but have to be real too. For instance, Zaroon in Zindagi Gulzar Hai is every bit a man - chauvinist, good looking and intelligent. But when he meets a woman, who challenges and changes him, there is friction as it is not easy for a man to keep his ego aside, accept and change.”

And so he doesn’t change, but she does for him. As Karanjeet Kaur, writing for The Caravan, has noted: “Each of these women protest, convincingly and sometimes movingly, against his [Zaroon’s] chauvinism. The serial’s ultimately conservative takeaway can feel like a betrayal, perhaps because its characters’ capitulations hew closer to reality than we’re willing to admit.”

Placed in Umera Ahmed’s overall oeuvre, which includes a novel that demonises Ahmadi families, her appeals to realism may just be a foil for the political thrust of her work, which has consistently sought to normalise and make palatable Pakistan’s shift further towards the political right. More sympathetically, the show may be an illustrative case of what Pierre Bourdieu called ‘symbolic violence’ - “a violence wielded with tacit complicity between its victims and its agents, insofar as both remain unconscious of submitting to or wielding it”. That would explain the contradictory politics of the show - progressive in the middle but ultimately conservative.

Salman Adil Hussain is a doctoral student at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He edits Chapati Mystery and Tanqeed



Iqtidar, Humeira, Secularizing Islamists: Jama’at-e-Islami and Jama’at-ud-Da’wa in Urban Pakistan, University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Jamal, Amina, “Gender, Citizenship, and the Nation-State in Pakistan: Willful Daughters or Free Citizens?” in Ahmad, Sadaf (ed.), Pakistani Women: Multiple Locations and Competing Narratives, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2010.

Toor, Saadia. “Moral Regulation in a Postcolonial Nation-State: Gender and the Politics of Islamization in Pakistan.” interventions 9, no. 2 (2007): 255-275.