How a society functions depends on it’s dwellers’ mind-set. You can make all the rules and laws you want, but it’s the people and what they believe deep in their hearts that produce the actual results. Media – books, newspapers, magazines, television, Internet – contribute greatly in either rejecting or reinforcing society’s long-held myths, ideas and stereotypes. It’s a two-way road actually. What the media shows is a reflection of society; and when it shows it, it further reinforces those beliefs.
In a country where majority of the population is illiterate i.e they can not even read, mass media is required for ensuring that something is communicated to them effectively. Marketers and advertisers have just one major aim as far as using the media to reach this illiterate majority goes: ensuring it buys the product and/or service on sale. They therefore use spectacular images, music and subliminal messaging in their television advertisements to garner the audience’s attention. Be it a mobile phone or a one-rupee candy, the tactic employed is the same.
Now it’s been over two decades since I’ve been viewing advertisements on TV; they usually caught my eye for the colors, situational characteristics, quality and choreography employed in their production. Of late however, its the underlying stereotyped ideas being promoted via these advertisements that do more to engage my attention – or, should I say – my indignation. Maybe it has got to do with the fact that now I am not such a happy-go-lucky, gum-chewing youngster anymore. The big Thirty-O stares me in the face a quarter of a year from now. I guess, as the hair starts to whiten and the hormones calm down a bit, the brain starts to work a bit more efficiently. Even though I have intentionally not kept a TV at home, just 20 minutes of random viewing at anyone else’s house fills me in with the head-whirling advertisement bombardment more than amply (I rest my case).
Now let’s get the stats right: more than 50% of any country’s population is female. In Pakistan, for most part of the day, television is viewed mostly by the female population – the stay-at-home wives, mothers, mothers-in-law, grandmothers, and house-maids, particularly in the time-slot of 9 a.m to 5 p.m. Consequently, most of the content broadcast in this time interval is targeted at this predominantly female audience. It’s no wonder then, that cooking shows and home-centered programs rule the roost.
In ads promoting cooking oil, tea, or even dishwashing detergent – the basic backdrop always remains the same. A young, exquisitely-dressed woman is shown in the kitchen, hovering over a pot on the stove, or even worse – in this age of automatic washing machines – loading her washer with a huge pile of laundry in the middle of her lawn. As she swirls around and gives the viewers a huge smile, singing the praises of the said product, we get a nice view of her assets. In ads promoting brands of tea, this pretty young lady serves her family cups of tea on a tray. And who is her "family"? A father-in-law, mother-in-law, a husband and children – the scenario is same in every advertisement. If the ad is selling a cooking oil, it shows this family seated around a huge dining table, as super-mom/wife/bahu lays the table with steaming dishes. In the end, she convinces the viewers how she gets extra love, acceptance and praise by her "family" because of her delicious culinary skills. One particular detergent ad showed a husband lauding his wife for successfully removing the stains of dirt off his shirt, while she winked at the viewers and admitted that the detergent did it. Another ad showed a prospective mother-in-law intentionally dropping in to visit her son’s fiance very early in the morning, in order to see the latter’s "saleeqa" of keeping house. The ad showed the frazzled daughter-in-law scurrying to clean up the kitchen before the "Aunty" entered the house. When the latter saw the gleaming dishes next to the sink (yeah, the ad was that of a dishwashing soap), she looked at her prospective ‘bahu‘ with approval. The ‘bahu’ sighed with relief.
Before I go on to discuss some even more degrading advertisements, I must highlight how all of them reinforce some fixed stereotypes of women in Pakistani society. One of these stereotypes is that a wife or daughter-in-law’s primary duty after marriage is housekeeping, cooking, and serving her husband, children and in-laws – and not necessarily in that particular order.
Now how is every young, college-going girl to achieve this "Pakistani dream"? That is, how is she to bag an eligible bachelor in order to spend the rest of her life thus serving his family? Well, we have more advertisements telling us how.
Top of the list: fairness and beauty creams. ‘Use this cream, catch the eye of that hottie in your college or the one at the cousin’s wedding or at the family-friend’s dinner party, and voila! Out comes the engagement ring. You’re all set’. It’s one thing for this message to be made via imagery in ads, it’s quite another to have some sickening dialogue going with it. I swear I have myself seen an ad in which a "dark" girl was shown in her college uniform, crying to herself and thinking "Who is going to marry me?" After using a certain turmeric-based cream, she eventually got married, and was shown all dolled-up and giggling away as her husband followed her around the house, staring like a love-sick puppy. If that wasn’t enough, she turned towards the camera and said, "I know that every girl wants her husband to praise her looks and fall in love with her like this, so you also use this cream!"
I don’t thread my eyebrows nor wear makeup in the house, and this is still the case with me. La haula wa laa quwatta illaa billah!!
The same message is given by shampoo advertisements; they are too innumerable to discuss here. In them, it’s a flick of the long, lustrous hair that achieves the same husband-snag very effectively. Cut to the reality show "Shadi Online", in which single people seeking marriage, or "candidates", are aired on TV so that they can get proposals via the media. On every episode of this show, a married couple is also present to offer advice regarding success in marital life. Once, an ex-Pakistani film actress and her husband were present on the show. When she was asked the secret of a successful marriage, she promptly replied, "Every Pakistani/Muslim girl should think of her husband as her ‘majazi khuda’". As for her husband, he had forbidden her from working in films after marriage, and now she even went to her mother’s house after asking him first, as he, according to her own admission, did not "like her going out of the house". What was he doing professionally, by the way? Oh he was still doing films, prancing around on hilltops in the arms of young lovelies. That is his ‘bread and butter’ you know. Majazi Khuda’s can do all that they want. It is a man’s world.
Now I know what you must be thinking. I am the Hijabi-Niqabi promoting an Islamic way of life, and in Islam the husband is akin to a ‘Majazi Khuda’ right? Wrong! In Islam, there is NO god except Allah. The word "khuda" can never be used for any one besides Allah, let alone even consider some other created object or being as a ‘khuda", even in one’s heart. That amounts to ‘shirk’ or polytheism, which is one of the gravest sins. Now I know what hadith people refer to when they consider the "majazi khuda" concept to have originated in the religion of Islam. It’s reproduced below:
The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “If I were to command anyone to prostrate to anyone other than Allah, I would have commanded women to prostrate to their husbands. By the One in Whose hand is the soul of Muhammad, no woman can fulfil her duty towards Allah until she fulfils her duty towards her husband. If he asks her (for intimacy) even if she is on her camel saddle, she should not refuse." [Narrated by Ibn Majah, 1853; classed as Saheeh by al-Albaani in Saheeh Ibn Majah]
There are other authentic ahadith that endorse the greatness of the husband’s rights upon his wife in Islam, particularly his right for intimacy. First and foremost, he has the right to be obeyed in all matters that do not go against Allah’s commands. Secondly, he has the right to deny her permission for some matters – if the need so arises – such as her visiting people or places he does not approve of. Scholars have written many books and articles regarding a husband’s and wife’s mutual rights in Islam, and I don’t intend to add to them. However, what I want to emphasize here, is that Muslim women should look at both sides of this picture, and not overlook the fact that they too, are not completely devoid of rights in this relationship. Some of their rights are: adequate food, shelter and clothing, and kind treatment. Yes, it is obligatory for a husband to provide all of these for his wife, and to treat her kindly. Now, about the advertisements promoting a wife’s complete and devoted servitude…..
First of all, after most of my friends and I myself got married, a question that eventually arose – not surprisingly – for most of them, was whether or not they could dare to ask their husbands for separate accommodation. Even biological siblings and cousins get into tiffs when living in close proximity, so what can we expect from people who were hitherto complete strangers? The attitude rampant here in Pakistan is that it is a grave disrespect and rude disobedience on the son’s part if he even thinks about living separately from his parents after his marriage. Consequently, it is a very commonly-witnessed, and quite sad, scenario in every other house having a joint family, that each married son is living in a single bedroom with his wife and up to 2, 3 children. It is not even considered unusual to find families living like this for years on end. As for the Islamic aspect of this issue, whether or not the daughter-in-law can live separately, you can find out by clicking here and here. Go ahead, you just might be surprised.
As mother of a son myself, I am strictly against the idea of expecting servitude from someone else’s daughter, i.e wanting her to prepare breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner for me, while I lounge around issuing orders. Recently, a "well-wishing" close relative – an Aunty who is a grandmother, with most of her children married off – advised me very "sincerely" – "Your parents have separated Saad already?! They should not have done that. Instead of giving him a portion of his own, they should have kept him and his wife with them at first, so that she eats with them, lives with them, and goes upstairs only to sleep at night. That way, she will care for them later on. By giving her her own portion/kitchen beforehand, they are telling her that it’s okay for her to live separately. Is that why parents raise sons? So that they leave them and live separately?"
I was speechless. I wanted to say, "Trust me, Aunty, I am NOT raising my son so that he and his wife become bonded labor in my "old age". They can do whatever they want, live where ever they want." However, in typical Aunty-style, anything I said in response was interrupted and brushed off. When I told my parents of this "sincere piece of advice", they couldn’t fathom why someone would interfere in their lives to this extent. The precise reason why they built the slightly private upper portion of the house was so that no one would feel cramped for space or privacy in the future. As for me, now I fully understand why most people desire sons. The aunty said so in her own words….."is that why parents raise sons?" Maybe she has raised her many sons for this reason, but not me. To each their own…
As for the act of prostration to the husband, were it allowed….well, once upon a time, there was a young lad who dreamt that the sun, moon and eleven stars were prostrating to him; when he reached middle age and a position of authority in his state, both his parents and all of his 11 brothers did in fact prostrate to him i.e his dream came true. Who was he, you might wonder? He was Prophet Yusuf [peace be upon him]. It says so in the Quran, in Surah Yusuf:
"Behold! Yusuf said to his father: "O my father! I did see eleven stars and the sun and the moon: I saw them prostrate themselves to me!"" [Yusuf:4]
"And he (Yusuf) raised his parents high on the throne (of dignity), and they fell down in prostration, (all) before him." [Yusuf:100]
Just because his father, Prophet Yaqoob and his mother prostrated themselves to their son, didn’t mean they thought of him as their "majazi khuda". Nope. It was an act denoting respect and acknowledgement of authority, because when this happened, Prophet Yusuf held a high post of the State Government. In all Shariah’s of Divinely-revealed religions before Islam (i.e the undistorted monotheistic religions preached by all Prophets of Allah, from Noah, to Abraham, to Moses and Jesus [peace be upon them all]), "prostration" or the act of sajdah (which we now do in salah) to rulers, kings, and other position-holders of authority, was allowed, to show obedience and respect. Even "bowing" – as we do in rukoo – was allowed. Here is a hadith that proves this:
When Mu`adh Ibn Jabal, the Prophet’s companion, came back from the Sham Area (Syria) to Madinah, he prostrated before the Prophet (peace be upon him) who asked him, "What is this, O, Muadh? " Muadh said, "I visited the Sham Area and witnessed them prostrate before their priests and patriarchs. I wished to myself that we did the same for you." The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, " Do not do it. However, if I were to order anyone to prostrate before anyone else besides Allah, I would have ordered the wife to prostrate before her husband. " [This is an authentic hadith collected in Sahih Ibn Majah]
Commentary: Imam Ibn Taimiyyah said, "How can it be concluded that prostrating to something indicates worship of it, when the Prophet said…" and he mentioned the hadith above, saying afterwards, "It is known that the Prophet did not say, ‘If I were to order anyone to worship anyone else…’"
The hadith above and it’s commentary clearly state that the act of prostration exemplified for a wife to her husband is not that of worship (and hence, he is not to even remotely be considered a "god", as that would go against Islam’s monotheistic message), but rather, of "ta’zeem" or honor/respect/subservience to authority.
Islam came and abolished this norm. From then on, bowing and prostrating was permitted only before Allah. Now it is quite noteworthy that a majority of the women in Pakistan clearly give their husband’s the higher authority in their marriage, acknowledging his higher position, and molding themselves into just what he wants them to be. That is good, isn’t it? Yes; but that is also where the problem starts…
"I don’t know why he can’t make his own dinner when he knows that I have 104 degree fever!" cries a lady relative over the phone, "he keeps asking me to give him his food." At another point in time, she had proudly claimed to me, "Not once, in our entire marriage, has [husband] had to go on a trip, be it night or day, that I wasn’t in the kitchen preparing his meal for him before his departure. Not once has he left the house with me sleeping in bed."
Congratulations then. Go make him his food now, even in your high fever. Giddyap!
Another piece of advice dished out by another Aunty: "Ensure that your husband becomes so used to you, that he can not get by for even a single day without you!" I guess that would mean: iron his shirts, lay out his clothes for him before he goes to work, buy his clothes for him, run all his errands….perhaps even tie his shoe-laces for him? Right?
"[My husband] cooks better than me, that’s why I don’t let him cook."
Ah, this one hits the bull’s eye! Insecurities-R-US, that’s the bottom-line, isn’t it? Insecurity. We think, weak that our faiths are, that if something happens to our breadwinner, our provision will be lessened or stopped. If we lose control over him, he will run after some twinky in his office, and we’ll be kicked out of this wonderful house over which we currently rule. So, what’s the best way to make sure this doesn’t happen? Take care of the jackpot… I mean, the husband, and slog at the kitchen, laundromat or ironing board, while he devours eye-candy before the television set, secretly rolls his eyes at our constant nagging, and stifles his yawns during trips to the mall. My wife…..who’s she? This lady is more like a cross between Nanny, Mom and a perfectionist control freak!
"Get me my fork," says a husband, without taking his eyes off the TV set, as he begins eating dinner at the table. Just as depicted in the colorful cooking oil advertisements, the entire table is laid out for him before he is summoned for dinner. He doesn’t even look up long enough to see that his tired wife had just taken her seat at the table, after dutifully preparing for everyone in the family their fresh roti or paratha with her own hands. Sighing, but not saying a word, she goes back into the kitchen to fetch his fork. This scenario has been repeated every single day over the years, so by now the "majazi khuda" has lost the habit of having his wife at the table while he eats. His wife has made it clear by her persistent servitude that her position, while he eats, is in the kitchen, preparing his food, while he dines. The children don’t help in laying the table or cleaning up after dinner either. Serving the entire family is the woman’s job.
"From now on for the rest of your life, you have to do the khidmat of your husband and children", resonates an Aunty’s advice in my ears. Is that a dong of doom I hear in the background? It sure sounds like it.
"What are you doing here?" asked a wide-eyed Aunty when she saw me living at my mother’s house beyond the forty-day period after my son Abdullah’s birth, "Why aren’t you at your own home?" Before I could even start stuttering a response, one about a water problem and how it was difficult for me to climb four apartment floors with two children, she prods on, "What is your husband eating then? Oh, you must have cooked all his food for him and frozen it, right?". *Sigh* Why do people answer their own questions? And why do they ask such intrusive questions in the first place? The accusing look on her face even before listening to my reply was evidence enough of her opinion of me as a wife. As if to say, ‘you-should-be-serving-your-husband-his-food-not-still-be-living-here’. Everyone knows my husband lived alone for years in Dubai and Canada before he got married. He didn’t starve then, did he? So why would he be starving now, just because his wife is recovering postpartum?
"The way to a man’s heart is through his (big, fat) stomach," insist mothers and aunts. Yes, we create our own monsters and chauvinists. Each man who roams the streets, offices and roads today, disrespecting women or treating them as inferior, was once a keen, observant child watching his mother mutely allow his father to mistreat her, deride her, or not give her due respect/importance in the household. By silently taking unfair treatment in stride, mothers teach their male children that it is perfectly alright to consider women inferior beings. By ladling out her adult son’s food for him on his plate or fetching him a fork when he demands one, a mother teaches her son that this is a woman’s status before a man, that of a personal valet, available at his beck and call. Forget about commanding respect, or demanding it…..do women today even deserve the respect of their male family members? Or do they act in a manner that invites everyone to walk all over them?
- There came Our messengers (angels) to Ibraham with glad tidings. They said, "Peace!" He answered, "Peace!" and hastened to entertain them with a roasted calf. [Surah Hud: 69]
- …..Abu Ayyub Al-Ansari slaughtered a young goat, cooked half and grilled the other half. He also asked his wife to bake, because she baked better, he said. When the food was ready, it was placed before the Prophet Muhammad and his two companions (Abu Bakr and Umar). The Prophet took a piece of meat and placed it in a loaf and said, "Abu Ayyub, take this to Fatimah. She has not tasted the like of this for days." When they had eaten and were satisfied, the Prophet said reflectively: "Bread and meat and busr and rutb!" Tears began to flow from his eyes as he continued: "This is a bountiful blessing about which you will be asked on the Day of Judgment. If such comes your way, put your hands to it and say, ‘Bismillah’ (In the name of God) and when you have finished say, ‘Al hamdu lillah alladhee huwa ashba’na wa an’ama a layna (Praise be to God Who has given us enough and Who has bestowed his bounty on us). This is best."
- One day Umar Bin Al-Khattaab (during his rule as Caliph of Madina) noticed a tent pitched in an open space outside Madina. A person was sitting outside the tent, and some one inside the tent was groaning. Umar went to the man, greeted him, and wanted to know who he was. The man said that he was a man of the desert, and had come to Madina to wait on the Commander of the Faithful and seek his assistance. Umar next asked who was groaning inside the tent. The man said that inside the tent his wife was groaning with labor pains. He said that he was a stranger in Madina and did not know what to do. Umar enquired whether he had any woman to look after the confinement of his wife. He said that there was none. Umar said, "Do not worry. I will make the necessary arrangements."
Umar came home, and asked his wife Umm Kulsum to accompany him on a mission of service. Umm Kulsum got ready and took with her such things as might be needed for the purposes of confinement. Umar took with him some provisions for the purposes of cooking a meal. Umar returned to the camp with his wife. Umm Kulsum went inside the tent to attend to the woman in pain, while Umar sat outside the tent with the Bedouin and began cooking some meals for him. After an hour or so, when the meals had been cooked, Umm Kulsum from inside the tent addressed Umar: Amirul Mominin! Congratulate your guest on the birth of a son." Hearing this the Bedouin felt much embarrassed. Turning to Umar he said, "Amirul Mominin, why did you not reveal your identity? You have overwhelmed me with your benevolence." Umar put all his fears to rest saying: "That’s all right. There is nothing to worry about. Thank God I have been of some service to you at the time of your need. You may come to me tomorrow and I will see what can be done further to help you".
The above clearly show how Allah’s Prophets and their companions helped their women in preparing food and serving it to guests. There is nothing wrong with men helping out in the kitchen, or eating simple food. Contrast the actions of our noble predecessors to those of the men depicted in modern advertisements, sitting at the dining table with pot bellies, waiting to be served like kings. One advertisement even showed a husband surveying the several dishes laid out before him, looking up to ask his wife, "…and my halwa?" No surprise that she promptly produced the steaming pot, which was supposed to be a surprise for him. Hmph!
So what am I advocating here? That women stop cooking meals in their homes? That men should instead do the honor? That everyone should employ a full-time cook? Well, all I am saying is, give cooking and eating the priority in life which it deserves. It’s not as big a deal as it is made out to be. Cooking good dishes should not be the grand purpose – per se – of anyone’s existence. And men are not superior to women (even if the husband has a degree of authority over his wife); therefore, women should not feel guilty if they "fail" to serve the men in their homes (fathers, husbands, brothers or sons) fresh meals, cooked by themselves, each and every day. Eating out or getting take-out is just fine. Or, as in my case, the husband can try his hand at cooking too. Aren’t all the best chefs in the world men?
"I cooked a month’s supply of food for my family before my trip abroad," comments an Aunty, "On my return, I discovered most of the food frozen as it was when I left. They had decided to eat out instead, in my absence…"
Take a hint, Aunty. And get a life!