Gender and Militarism: A Feminist Critical Analysis of the Pakistani Series “Sinf-e-Ahan” 

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Poster of the Pakistani drama series “Sinf-e-Ahan”

Violence has become the norm. After all, as Margaret Mead says, “No society that feeds its children on the tales of successful violence can expect them to not believe that violence is rewarded.”1 These tales of successful violence are a very important component of the society we live in, a society where militarism has flooded not just combat fields and war, but parliaments and their politics, courts and their justice, our homes and our thoughts.  

Militarism is an ideology based on the value of “power over the other” and manifests itself in material and ideological forms. Even though the material manifestations include wars and direct military interventions, destabilizing other countries through proxy armies, foreign-sponsored coups, occupation, military rule and abuse of human rights, the ideological manifestations of militarism are more insidious.2 The propagation of militaristic language and values in society leads to “hierarchies” becoming acceptable, the progress of nationalism and hyper-nationalism which defines the “other” as the enemy, the accession of violence as a legitimate means of  resolving conflicts, and the rigid division of masculine and feminine gender roles.  

The patriarchal division of gender roles has shaped militarism, which has in turn furthered the gender divide. Burke argues that the division of what are essentially “human” characteristics into  rigid categories of masculine and feminine can itself be a root of discrimination and violence in society.3 The notion of “combat” is central to the conception of manhood, and consequently, the superiority of maleness. Hence military values become essential in a patriarchal society.  

The military allows its recruits to show stereotypical masculine traits such as aggressiveness, bravery, endurance, discipline, etc, while stripping them off of any feminine characteristics such  as tenderness, compassion, etc. Even camaraderie is not based on community and cooperation  (feminine traits) but on hierarchy and a model of dominance and submission.4 The military doesn’t just define the masculine archetype, it also defines its antithesis, the feminine archetype that is passive and weak. The masculinity of war depends on the myth that women must be protected.5 

It also differentiates between “good” women (wives, mothers and “sweethearts”) who require  protection and “bad” women (prostitutes and enemy women) who are disposable. This distinction  is visible when in war soldiers protect the honor of “their” women at the expense of sexually abusing and murdering the “other” women. During the 1971 War in Bangladesh, many abominable reports of sexual abuse of Bengali women by the Pakistani military surfaced. As per one such report, 563 young Bengali women, some only 18, were seized from Dacca University and held captive inside its dingy military cantonment operating as a brothel.5

This goes on to show that militarism banks on the exploitation of women and the denial of their subjectivity and hence upholds the inequalities between the sexes. It allows women to be seen only in relation to men, either as victims in need of protection or as sexual objects deserving degradation. These gender roles extend to normal civilian lives and the socialization of children is done in such a way that they imbibe these gendered traits. These constructs become deep-seated in society and people accept that aggression is a “natural” for boys, just as “passivity” is for girls. These gender-specific roles become “common sense,” just as militarism. 

It is also worth noting that the propagation of militaristic ideas in society needs compliance from people. While in some cases this is done through low-intensity conflict, in most democratic countries, acceptance is built through consent. Government propaganda and militaristic education  in schools can help legitimize and foster the process of militarization. There are also other subtle ways which include popular culture and media to glorify military exploits.  

Deconstructing the Pakistani Series ‘Sinf-e-Ahan’

A recent instance of glorification of militaristic ideology through media and popular culture is the Pakistani television series aired on ARY Digital (27 November 2021–7 May 2022) titled “Sinf-e Ahan” or Women of Steel. The series follows the journey of 7 women, Arzoo Daniel (Syra  Yousuf), Mahjabeen Mastaan (Kubra Khan), Pariwesh Jamal (Ramsha Khan), Rabia Safeer (Sajal  Aly), Shaista Khanzada (Yumna Zaidi), Syeda Sidra Batool (Dananeer Mobeen), Nathmy Pereira (Yehali Tashiya Kalidasa), who join the Pakistani Military Academy (PMA) to become commissioned officers. These women, hailing from varied backgrounds, have one thing in common, to do something greater than what they are conventionally meant to do as women. The show follows them through their initial assessment, followed by their training and commission at PMA. The idea behind the show is to reflect upon the transformation of these women in the military. The characters undergo the same tests and hardships as their male counterparts and conquer their fears and insecurities to evolve from “the fragile weaker sex” to women of steel. 

The plot of Sinf-e-Ahan, although seemingly progressive, falls very short when critically analyzed from a feminist perspective. Such an analysis is necessary if we consider the subjugation of women as an integral part of militarism. Sinf-e-Ahan showcases the Pakistani military as a beacon of hope for women escaping the shackles of a patriarchal society. It is portrayed as a fair meritocracy, where discrimination based on gender, ethnicity and religion is non-existent. But lying in the crevices are the grim realities of this safe haven.  

The military is rightly showcased as a masculine space where feminine traits are weeded out. This is evident in the language and behavior of the cadets and their instructors. For example, Arzoo questions Sidra,“Ham yaha khud fauji ban ne nahi aaye? Or handsome bhi?” Although the statement may seem innocent, the transposition of conventionally masculine traits (fauji/handsome) on feminine ones (interestingly there isn’t a feminine word for fauji/beautiful) is what it signifies, the very crux of the inclusion of women in the military. Similarly, Pariwesh tells her father, “Ab mai aapki beti nahi, fauji ban gayi hu!” Like the previous statement, this dialogue also suggests the incompatibility of femininity with the military but it also hints at the de-individualization that a recruit goes through in the military. 

There are also some blunt jabs at conventionally feminine activities like makeup, decoration and daily soaps. For instance, after commanding Mahjabeen to return all her makeup and dye her hair back black, the platoon commander lauds her look, “Now you look like a soldier.” In another incident she chides her, saying that “Zindagi  makeup or hairstyling se zyada badi cheez hai. Aapki pehchan aap ka makeup nahi aapki personality honi chahiye”. Such compliments and comments advertise that feminine activities like make-up are inappropriate in the masculine space of the military, implying their inferiority.  

There are many instances of sexism and misogyny from the cadets and their trainers at PMA. The most apparent examples have been discussed below. In the first instance, the cadets’ trainer, also  addressed as “Staff” very profoundly states, “Sinf-e-Nazuk ban ke aayi hai, Sinf e-Ahan ban ke jaye gi”. It implies that military training will transform the fairer, weaker sex, into women of steel. Why this implication is problematic needs deliberation. Of course, it demonstrates the sexist view that women are “Nazuk” or fragile, but it also suggests that it is after military training that women become empowered, which is a very skewed representation of empowerment. The statement also invalidates the valor that these women had while standing against their  subjugation, running away from their homes, resisting their families, and simply surviving in a system that oppresses them at every level. It ignores the fact that women, even though not combatants in war, often find themselves in situations of combat, and face greater risk than men in situations of war. Women are not “Nazuk”, they are brave, but their bravery is not acknowledged, just like in this statement. 

The second instance of sexism is another belittling remark by the trainer, where while scolding the cadets for their inefficient endurance he says “Mai to aapko ye bhi nahi keh sakta ki chudiyan pehen le aap”. This statement firstly suggests that wearing chudiya (bangles), which is a feminine behavior, is meant to be an insult, often used for men in the military. Secondly, this assertion also suggests that women have to be devoid of any feminine behavior to be part of the military.  

Further, at times the misogyny comes from women themselves. Sidra in one scene remarks on the  physical abilities of a peer, “Ye Nathamy bilkul ladko ki tarah bhagti hai”. This statement is premised on the gender stereotype that men have better athletic abilities. In a sadly comical sense,  it insinuates that women who run well actually run like men, and not women, even though they are, well, women. In another scene she mistakenly assumes “Jo Alpha Bravo Charlie or Sunehre  Din mai ladko ke saath hota tha na, wo hamare saath nahi hona, ham to sinf-e-nazuk hai na”.  Sidra’s statements are a testament to her belief in her own inferiority cultivated in a patriarchal society. 

In another instance, Shaista while talking to her grandmother explains that in PMA, “Hame to  bandook chalana sikhate hai, padhna sikhate hai, ye aurton wale kaam nahi sikhate” whilst waving her hands dismissively. This dismissal of work done by women in the kitchen, and around the house, as unimportant is a very strong patriarchal tactic that aids the subjugation of women. Shaista perhaps will never realize this.  

This sexism is not surprising, considering the military is, and will perhaps always be a masculine sphere. It is institutionally meant to uphold the inequality within the sexes while putting up a farce of progressiveness by including women only in administrative and service roles, with lower pay, and lesser years of commission as compared to men.6 Women like General Nigar, are the exception, not the rule, and they have had to discard most of their feminine characteristics and roles to reach such prominence in a masculine space.  

The consequence of such sexism and misogyny is the “otherization” of feminine characteristics.  Not only for people in the military but also for young girls sitting at home, who will internalize that wearing bangles is a sign of weakness, running fast is a masculine trait, cooking is insignificant, feminine jobs are less important, that without abandoning their femininity they will  always be typical weak women. This otherization furthers gender roles, which in turn, as discussed  above, sustains a patriarchal, militarist society. 

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A still from the Pakistani series “Sinf-e-Ahan”

Is there a way forward? 

One might wonder then, what is the intention that drives shows like Sinf-e Ahan? After deconstruction, the problematic nature of these shows is quite evident, but we have to realize that lay people do not “deconstruct”. That more often than not, they do not have the resources, education and acquired knowledge to be able to see through the farce in the name of feminism. A farce because Pakistan remains to be one of the most unsafe places for women with alarming statistics of sexual abuse, domestic violence, gender discrimination, etc.7 Besides, the opportunities for women are also severely limited with low literacy8 and employment rates9 and a huge gender pay gap.10 Instead of creating awareness or highlighting the way to tackle these problems, the Pakistani media chooses to showcase the false progressiveness of their state’s militaristic ideology. 

Sinf-e-Ahan did not just portray Pakistan as a progressive society in terms of women’s  empowerment. It is also intended to portray Pakistan as a just society where minorities have equal opportunities and resources. Pariwesh’s dialogue “Ek fard ki pehchan sirf uska mulk hota hai,  koomiyat nahi, suba bhi nahi” highlights the hyper nationalistic attempt to blur the lines that divides the minorities, and marginalized ethnicities from the majority in Pakistan. Of course, yet  again this ideology ignores the heinous crimes committed against minorities in Pakistan and maintains the system that is structurally built to keep these communities subjugated.11,12 

We can then, simply, discard this show as militaristic propaganda of false progressiveness in a  country that lives off subjugating its gender minorities. But, should we completely discard it? I would approach the answer with caution. People with knowledge of gender and militarism will see this show for what it is, but for the layperson, this show is about women.  

One cannot deny that Sinf-e-Ahan is one of the very few shows in Pakistani media that has given space to women’s experiences. (Even if it is a skewed representation of their experience in the real  world). It has shown that women speak for themselves, have dreams and ambitions, work hard, break gender barriers, and succeed. It has also captured the impediments that women face on many levels while building their careers. These women are not jealous schemers or helpless maidens in the background. They are headstrong, vocal and ambitious, something that the media fails to portray very often. If not anything, one can appreciate Sinf-e-Ahan for moving away from the typical representation of women. For acknowledging that women exist outside the kitchen and the bedroom and that they do more than living room politics. 

But there is still a long way to go. Pakistani media will need deep introspection and structural transformation to change from an agent of patriarchy and militarism to an agent of progressive social change. The citizens of Pakistan, especially gender, religious, and ethnic minorities, can be a driving force for this revolution. It is going to be a difficult journey, and there will be mountains to stop us from speaking, but in Faiz’s words: 

بول، کہ لب آزاد ہیں تیرے 

(Bol, ki lab Azaad hai tere!)


References 

Margaret Mead. (n.d.). AZQuotes.com. Retrieved June 03, 2022, from AZQuotes.com Web site: https://www.azquotes.com/quote/530524 

Burke, C. (1998). Women and militarism. Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.  http://www.wilpf.int.ch/publications/womenmilitarism.htm

N.A, The World: East Pakistan: Even the Skies Weep. https://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,877316,00.html 

Pakistan Army, Lady Cadet Course 2022 | Join Pak Army as LCC 21. Retrieved June 03, 2022,  from Pakistan Forces Website: https://pakistanforces.com/join-pak-army-as-lady-cadet course/amp/ 

Khan, U. (2020). Gender-Based Violence in Pakistan-a Critical Analysis (Doctoral dissertation,  Harvard University). 

Kamal, M. A. (2022, February 27). Gender inequality in Education. Pakistan Today. RetrieveD  June 3, 2022, from https://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2022/02/27/gender-inequality-in education/ 

Bano, K., & Waqar, K. (2020, July 1). The Long Road to gender equality in Pakistan’s Labour  Force. ICIMOD. Retrieved June 3, 2022, from https://www.icimod.org/article/the-long road-to-gender-equality-in-pakistans-labourforce/#:~:text=Only%2025%25%20of%20Pakistani%20women,roles%20are%20held%2 0by%20women

Philipp, J. (2022, March 24). Gender wage gap in Pakistan. The Borgen Project. Retrieved June  3, 2022, from https://borgenproject.org/gender-wage-gap-in-pakistan/ 

Wolf, S. O. Research Report 7-State persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan: Christians in  distress. 

Zaigham, N. (2009). Report on issues faced by minorities in Pakistan. South Asians for Human  Rights. Islamabad: Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research. All Images have been sourced from: ARY Digital HD YouTube Channel  (https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLb2aaNHUy_gGLC-fH3JYcmvPEo933cKvB)


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Afreen Zehra

Afreen is a Master’s student of Applied Psychology at the University of Delhi. She has always believed in breaking away from the chains that her complex identity placed on her, despite coming from a conservative household in the conflict-laden region of Kashmir. Her identity has taught her that no matter how hard it is to ride against the tide, a beating heart is all she needs to make tides turn.

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