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Pakistani soap operas seek to break taboos

ISLAMABAD: In life, she chased fame, hoping to make her mark in Pakistani society. In death, murdered social media starlet Qandeel Baloch may have achieved her goal.
Today she is a household name, and her tragic story has been turned into a soap opera — one of several immensely popular TV shows seeking to challenge the country´s conservative taboos.

´Baaghi´, which means ´Rebel´, charts the rise of Baloch from young, exploited girl to internet sensation infamous for her provocative selfies until her shocking murder, with her brother confessing to the high-profile killing.

The show airs on private TV channel Urdu 1 every Thursday. Viewing figures are unavailable, but its pilot episode has been viewed more than 1.6 million times on YouTube.

“That girl was a lioness. She should not have died yet,” says Shazia Khan, a writer on the series.

Baloch´s fate polarised Pakistan. For some, it inflamed outrage over so-called “honour” killings in which hundreds of predominantly women are killed each year, usually by male relatives, for bringing what they perceive as shame on their families.

But the concept of “honour” is deeply embedded in parts of Pakistan´s patriarchial culture, and other voices argued that Baloch had made herself a target by her actions — tame by Western standards but deemed provocative in the conservative country.

The decision to turn her death into one of Pakistan´s popular television soap operas has ensured the debate surrounding such murders of women endures.

Notorious for its high-profile story, Baaghi is just one of a wave of soap operas and dramas airing plotlines that revolve around such social issues: from domestic violence to child abuse, forced and child marriages, misogyny and women´s rights.

They are devoured by Pakistan´s 207 million strong population.

Research by Pakistan´s media regulator shows that in 2016, 65 percent of television viewers watched drama channels featuring such soap operas. Another survey by Gallup Pakistan shows 67 percent of adult female viewers and 56 percent of adult male viewers watch entertainment shows, mainly soaps.

Their popularity makes them a potentially powerful vehicle for progress, says lawyer Benazir Jatoi, who works for women´s rights watchdog the Aurat Foundation and has long argued that laws protecting women are not enough to effect grassroots change

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