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These witches prey on disloyal husbands

Beenish Javed
December 4, 2020

An online drama series called "Churails," about a group of female detectives, is challenging deeply entrenched patriarchal values in Pakistan. Critics are up in arms.

Indisch-Pakistanische Webserie: 'Churails'' meaning ''witches''
Image: @Zee5

Zubaida, a young woman living in a slum of Karachi, aspires to become a boxer and is in love with a man. Her father beats her because of these "unacceptable" desires. Instead of tolerating the abuse, this rebellious woman leaves home to live life on her own terms.

Zubaida is one of the characters of the online series Churails, or "witches" in Urdu, produced in Pakistan's commercial hub, Karachi. Across South Asia, the word "churail" or "churel" is used to signify a witch who performs black magic to harm other people. Even today, many innocent women accused of being witches are hunted and killed in the rural areas of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

The television series turns the concept around and depicts powerful female characters who challenge double standards that exist in Pakistan, especially regarding women. The 10-episode online series was produced for the Indian on-demand streaming website Zee5.

It revolves around four women from different economic backgrounds who, instead of becoming victims of their circumstances, choose to break the social constraints that hold them back. These four protagonists get together and create a detective agency to catch cheating husbands.

Weak, sensitive and helpless

In most Pakistani dramas, which are quite popular in South Asia, women are generally portrayed as helpless, weak and sensitive. Negative female characters are often shown as conniving and manipulative. The storyline usually revolves around familial relationships and often, women who are friends or even sisters are shown fighting to be with the same man. In the end, women who are principled, modest and the forgiving get the 'prize.'

"Pakistani dramas are generally made for women but at the same time, they are not uplifting," Sarwat Gilani, one of the main actresses in Churails, tells DW. "I feel that because our women are portrayed as being weak and meek, they are also treated like that," she adds.

Sarwat Gilani is one of the lead actresses in the show
Sarwat Gilani is one of the lead actresses in the showImage: @Zee5

Sadaf Khan an advocate of women rights based in Pakistan believes that the "Definition of strong Pakistani women is linked with their ability to compromise, to be obedient. In Pakistani dramas, a strong woman is someone who suffers a lot and fights back by simply compromising and being patient."

Scary women

Directed by Asim Abbasi, Churails breaks this rigid pattern of Pakistani drama serials. One of the characters in the series is a woman who drinks, smokes, and uses abusive language, the opposite of how most Pakistani women are shown on television. The series also shows a woman who serves jail time because she kills her husband for trying to rape their daughter. Some of these issues raised in the serial have caused an outrage in Pakistan. Conservatives have called this an insult to Pakistani culture, although in reality, many Pakistani women defy the cliche of a submissive and obedient person.

The series also touches upon issues such as marital rape, incest, different sexual orientations and forced marriages, issues that Pakistani society is extremely uncomfortable talking about. Most importantly, Churails has become controversial because it shows how women are able to get out of such abusive situations.

Read more: Witch hunts remain a global problem in the 21st century

Author of Navigating Pakistani Feminism, Aisha Sarwari finds this outrage unreasonable. "If a fictional story can threaten a society, that society has got tremendously weak cultural foundations. This is because under the acceptable norms, a good woman is not a churail. A churail is the most fearful character in the imagination of the typical South Asian male because she is the only woman upon whom force does not apply."

A difficult conversation

According to Zee5,  Pakistani officials also tried to push the streaming service to ban Churails, an action that may be part of the government's wider crackdown on 'indecent' content. But liberal critics too have expressed their misgivings about the ways in which women in the series fight injustice.

"The series does challenge the system but the way it has been shown is questionable. For instance, there is an act where blackmail is shown to be ok," journalist Mahwash Ajaz argues.

Read more: Pakistan bans TikTok for failing to filter 'immoral' content

But lead actress Gilani justifies the storyline by saying, "Churails was not made to make people comfortable. It has been made so people can ask themselves why it is making them uncomfortable, why there are so many gaps in our society [and] why everything is okay behind closed doors."

Women's activist Sadaf Khan suggests that scriptwriters in Pakistan should look into real-life examples of stories and try to show how women are changing the dynamics of Pakistani society. "The struggles of professional Pakistani women should be shown in dramas — issues such as lack of day care centers are simply missing because women are shown as homemakers. The idea of independent or financially stable women is in conflict with the idea that these women could also have a family."