Hina Khwaja Bayat

KARACHI, Pakistan (WOMENSENEWS)–After months of agonizing over a terrible suspicion, “Mrs. X” did something previously unthinkable in a traditional and conservative society that prefers to keep its personal life behind closed doors.

She called a Pakistani television show in early December and aired her problem to a nationwide audience. “I am afraid my husband may be sexually abusing my youngest daughter and . . . I don’t know what to do,” whisperedthe distraught mother of two girls, identified simply as Mrs. X to conceal her identity.

Mrs. X is just one of hundreds of Pakistanis reaching out to strangers for help with very personal problems on private cable television station Geo’s newest Friday night show “Uljhan Suljhan,” or “Problem Solving.”

The show, the first of its kind in Pakistan, started at the end of the summer and the majority of viewers–about 70 percent–are female, most between 18 and 40. While there are no hard numbers on the size of its audience, producers of Uljhan Suljhan say it could number in the millions.

The show’s producers hope the program–which safeguards the identities of its callers–will help people think and talk more freely about familial, marital or financial problems and that it will help lift the silence that surrounds taboo topics such as impotence, rape and infidelity.

“People need to talk,” says Hina Bayat, the show’s host. “In this part of the world there’s a certain sense of propriety. A lot of things, bad things, we just pretend they don’t happen . . . At the same time, there are plenty of people out there with real problems or just plain confusion.”

“Our society is ready for change,” agrees Adnan Awan, Uljhan Suljhan’s producer. “These types of programs are what are required and you can see that from the overwhelming responses.”

Since its first broadcast at the end of August, Geo’s Karachi offices have been flooded by responses. E-mail inboxes have overflowed electronic storage space, fax-machine paper has run out and people have come in to meet the show’s production team.

The show also plays the role of a provider of social-service referrals as it gives all its callers–both those who make it on the air and those who do not–contact information for doctors, lawyers or counselors who might be able to help.

Questions from women indicate a range of concerns, from wanting to remain single and finish university to wondering what to do about sexual harassment and wanting to talk about rape.

Many of the young women who watch the program are going through puberty and confused about the process and anxious to find someone to talk to. A 2001 study carried out by the Karachi office of the Pakistan Medical Research Council, a Pakistan government-funded research group, discovered that while almost 80 percent of girls understand how women get pregnant, less than half understood much else about their own reproductive systems. For example, more than 50 percent of women surveyed think menopause occurs when a woman has fulfilled her quota of children.

Questions of Love, Marriage

After 13 shows into an initial run of 26, producers have noticed a definite theme emerging in the issues on the minds of their callers. “Love,” says the producer Awan. “A million and one Romeo and Juliets, star-crossed lovers, looking for a way to follow their hearts without meeting a Shakespearean end.”

Marriage in Pakistan is still primarily a matter of family mergers. Over 90 percent are arranged by parents interested in a union with respectable, well-off families of equal or better stature. Marrying for love is widely scorned. In some cases, women who marry the partner of their choice are hunted down by male relatives and either forced to renounce their vows or killed for dishonouring the family.

In most cases, guests on the show advise women who want to avoid an arranged marriage to talk openly and honestly with trusted family members and then try approaching the family patriarch. Despite the generally low social status of women in Pakistan and although this approach is not always effective, experts say that some fathers are protective of their daughters and interested in their concerns about marriage.

But talking openly is in itself a difficult undertaking, and many discussions on Uljhan Suljhan take up the problem of young people–both female and male–suffering in silence.

Pakistani discretion about personal problems can cause severe psychological trauma, according to Shehnaz Yusuf, a Karachi-based social worker.

“In 99 out of 100 cases, not even closest confidantes realize there is a problem until the related stress overwhelms the individual, producing various forms of acting out, including nervous breakdowns, severe depressions and violence,” says Yusuf, who laments the lack of official attention to psychological disorders.

The 2002 report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan stated that 50 percent of Pakistani women are subjected to abuse, either verbal or physical. Social pressure coupled with the police and judiciary often looking the other way, leaves 90 percent of serious cases unreported.

The government and other organizations operate dozens of drug addiction, mental health and crisis clinics throughout the country, yet social stigma prevents many here from seeking their services. The Human Rights Commission reports that 8 out 10 women with emotional troubles lack effective safety nets that can be provided by family, friends or health-care professionals.

“There is a definite need for more positive publicity promoting the idea that it is not shameful to ask for help when you need it,” says Yusuf.

Along with the host, Hina Bayat, two guests drawn from a rotating panel of psychiatrists, social workers, psychologists and lawyers appear on the show. Together with members of the studio audience they discuss each problem highlighted on the show and try to come to a group recommendation.

In the case of Mrs. X, everyone agreed it was best for her not to turn to the police, at least at first, because they are notorious for turning the accuser–especially women who rarely know their rights–into the accused. Instead, they encouraged Mrs. X to approach both her daughters and talk about her suspicions, attempt to engage her husband in family counseling and then seek the help of a lawyer and a social worker.

“All the advice may end up leading nowhere,” says Yusuf. “But just the mere ability to actually be able to talk about such problems without the risk of damage to one’s reputation or social standing can provide desperately needed relief.”

Although the show has met with mostly favorable public reception, Uljhan Suljhan’s producers remain cautious. “We do have to be careful not upset people too much or we’ll be shot down,” Bayat, the show’s host, tells Women’s eNews. “Our offices did receive one e-mail from a very irate gentleman accusing us of performing unnatural acts on people because of our too Western ways. But that’s been about the worst of the negative feedback.”

Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Pakistan who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International, and the London Sunday Times.

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