July Issue 2012

By | News & Politics | Society | Published 12 years ago

Karachiites first spotted them in April — those badly printed banners that appeared on billboards seemingly overnight, sponsored by an unheard-of women’s organisation. “Stop promoting nudity for selling your fabrics,” one billboard exhorted. “Sell dresses, not modesty,” instructed another. Soon these hoardings were displaced by those put up by a Lahore-based religious organisation, Tanzeem-e-Islami, which managed to paper the city with its message more effectively. From Clifton to Shahrae-Faisal, Tanzeem-e-Islami’s message is now prominently displayed on billboards for all to see. “Vulgarity spoils, modesty beautifies,” proclaims one message. Other messages reference passages from the Holy Quran that extol the virtues of modesty.

Add to this the Jamaat-i-Islami’s recent observance of an ‘Anti-Vulgarity Day’ and you begin to see that a concerted effort is being made to draw attention to alleged immorality in advertising and the media. Since this campaign came hot on the heels of spring’s explosion of lawn advertisements, it would be easy to assume that the backlash is a one-off event. But the campaign’s visibility, the hype it’s generated in the ad industry and the media, and the interest that other, more mainstream groups and individuals have shown in the cause, says otherwise.

“Our cause is simple — we strive to promote Islam,” says Tanzeem-e-Islami spokesperson Mirza Ayub Baig. Founded in 1975 by Dr Israr Ahmed, a former member of the Jamaat-i-Islami, Tanzeem-e-Islami claims to be uninterested in pursuing power through electoral success, choosing instead to “target a particular evil in society, and employ all the contemporary techniques of peaceful and non-violent agitation and civil disobedience to eradicate that evil.”

Though spokesperson Baig cites bank interest and co-education as areas of concern as well, the Tanzeem’s target evil of choice these days is definitely what it sees as vulgarity in advertising and the media. “I can say with certainty that families cannot watch television together these days — the amount of vulgarity in our programmes makes it impossible,” asserts Baig. “I hang my head in shame at the way we are aping the West, using bad language on television and showing skin in advertising. It’s gone so far that people cannot watch cricket matches anymore, because every few seconds you will see a shot of a cheerleader!”

The Tanzeem-e-Islami appears most concerned about the effect of the mass media on family, culture and civic life. Baig cites numerous examples of young men and boys endangering themselves and others on the roads as they are distracted by lawn advertisements featuring beautiful women. When he is pressed, however, Baig claims that Tanzeem-e-Islami’s campaign also aims to protect and shelter women from being objectified and treated as commodities.

“There are many injustices committed against women in Pakistan, injustices like rape and domestic violence. But using a woman as a saleable item, displaying her in magazines to help sell a product — this may be an even bigger injustice than physical abuse. These advertisements crush a woman’s soul!” says Baig. One wonders what victims of rape and domestic abuse would have to say about this. Baig concludes by asserting that members of the Tanzeem’s women’s wing are also vehemently opposed to vulgarity in advertising, and many have stopped watching television altogether to protect their families from indecent content.

He is probably not aware of it, but Baig’s point about advertising leading to the commodification of women’s bodies apes a well-known feminist concern. Women’s organisations across the world have succeeded in increasing awareness about the damaging effects of highly sexualised advertising content, which in turn has caused advertisers and media executives to closely monitor their activities. Why then should the Tanzeem’s campaign for greater modesty in advertising be a sticking point at all?

The answer is this: because the Tanzeem’s agenda is religiously motivated. As religious parties in Pakistan are not known to throw their weight behind women’s issues — access to contraception and the ongoing preponderance of domestic violence which engenders not a squeak from the religious right, are prime examples — the Tanzeem’s stated concern for women’s emotional and spiritual well-being is hard for people to buy into.

This is why Kashif Naseem Dilkusha, a Karachi-based businessman who plans to launch a campaign against excessive skin shown in advertising, conservatively describes his initiative as a “social pressure group that promotes human values.”

“I am a religious person,” says Dilkusha. “And I am against the extremely provocative ads and lawn campaigns we see around us these days. But my colleagues and I have agreed that we should work on our campaign as a social project, as a humanitarian cause. We don’t want to couch this in religious terms as that puts a negative spin on things.”

Dilkusha became interested in promoting moderation in advertising when he was approached by a group of people who had heard a sermon he had given after prayers one afternoon — a sermon on the topic ‘what are we doing for the ummah.’ Dilkusha and his colleagues eventually hope to create awareness about a wide variety of social ills, from disregard for traffic rules to smoking.

“What I dislike about our advertisements these days is that it has all become a competition. Brands compete with one another to show off the most enticing woman. It nullifies the respect that our religion has for women,” says the businessman-turned-social activist.

Dilkusha disagrees with the notion that increasing women’s visibility in the media through advertising is a form of empowerment. “What is your definition of women’s empowerment?” he asks. “Is a woman’s intellect being developed when she is used to sell garments? I don’t see anything positive coming out of this kind of advertising.”

But according to the equally outspoken plethora of writers and bloggers who have taken to the net to defend a certain kind of ad, even couching the idea in secular terms cannot justify a ‘modesty’ revolution. For them, campaigns that champion modesty are barely veiled attempts to stifle and control women, and most take issue with the word ‘modesty’ itself. One blogger sums up her disdain for ‘modesty’ campaigns succinctly: “Modesty is no more a virtue for women than it is for men, and obscene is the gaze of the man making me uncomfortable, not a sleeveless dress. If they’d complained about the commodification of women via lawn ads, or hell, even complained about the price of lawn, I would have supported them wholeheartedly, but this is the wrong approach. I do not need more lectures on morality by billboards, I already get them by random strangers on public transport.”

Fashion designer Deepak Perwani feels a similar scorn for groups that champion ‘modesty.’ “Why are we so afraid of women?” he wonders. “Why do we always want to control women? Instead of keeping up with the world we’re regressing — look at other Muslim states like Malaysia, Egypt and the UAE. They’re moving forward and keeping pace with the international scene. In the meantime, we have just become an unhappy country that likes to comment on petty issues.”

Perwani points out that lawn has added new life to the textile industry and says much benefit will come to Pakistan when it begins to market its lawn in India. “Do these groups want to stop that kind of progress? Do they want to ban the Lux Style Awards next? This attitude disgusts me, and frankly I don’t think one should flatter these groups by giving them any coverage in the media at all.”

02Stop-nudity07-12Every advertisement, whether it is deemed acceptable or unacceptable by certain parties, has a concept behind it, which has usually been picked apart and streamlined by an advertising agency. So it’s easy to assume that advertising agencies have insight into what makes an ad offensive or palatable. But advertising executives are mostly perplexed by the recent scrutiny their work has generated.

“I would say that 90% of our advertisements wouldn’t offend anyone,” says Saher Khan, creative director at Circuit. “Of course, different groups and individuals have different standards of acceptability — some people feel that showing pictures or faces is immoral. But we cater to the mainstream.”

Saher stresses that as far as lawn campaigns are concerned, much of the backlash exists because people are not familiar with fashion photography and highly conceptual shoots. “Advertising for fashion shouldn’t be conventional — that negates its purpose,” exclaims Saher. That said, she feels that the recent boom in lawn advertising is the real issue, not the content itself. “And as far as other companies are concerned — I haven’t seen anything more risqué than a sleeveless kameez in a lawn ad,” she says.

Having said that, Saher also questions whether groups like Tanzeem-e-Islami are targeting vulgarity — or women. “There is nothing wrong with a woman appearing in an advertisement, making a living as a brand ambassador. It’s a job, and nothing more should be made of it.”

Sami Shah, writer, comedian and creative director at a leading ad agency believes that the issue that groups like Tanzeem-e-Islami have with ads these days has less to do with empowerment and more to do with local cultural sensitivities. He does feel that the amount of skin shown in some lawn advertisements may make conservatives uncomfortable — but points out that most lawn manufacturers don’t employ established ad agencies to promote their lawn, and so are not representative of the advertising industry’s general standards.

“For example, my agency handles only AlKaram and Gul Ahmed — both large brands. Most lawn advertisements represent the fashion industry, not the advertising industry. Designers will get their photographer friends to conceptualise and shoot their ads, which are then put up around the city by agents who rent out billboards. It’s pretty unsupervised,” he reveals.

Shah feels it is usually global campaigns which push the limits of cultural acceptability — not local ads. “I would say the current Veet campaign featuring Katrina Kaif and the Slice ad that ran a little while ago were more provocative than anything we’ve come up with at home.”

Seema Taher Khan, co-founder of Interflow, is also of the opinion that Pakistani ads generally err on the side of caution when it comes to content. She also points out that women are featured in advertising more often than men because women make key consumption decisions for the household — not because they are meant to beguile or entice the viewer. “Featuring a woman to sell a product is not unethical; after all advertisers understand that she is the nucleus of their communications, she is the consumer, she influences the purchaser and is the end beneficiary. In any case, exploitation and injustice to women is a national issue and does not have direct links to advertising.”

In the past, monitoring authorities like PEMRA have not stringently overseen advertisements. Saher cites a recent ad campaign as an example: “IFG ads regularly feature women in bras now — something we couldn’t have done 12 years ago.”

Seema Taher Khan also suggests that the government and local authorities are not very interested in laying down standards or formulating a code of ethics for advertising. However, she stresses that formal protests against advertisements are rarely launched by the general public, which is why advertisers just keep doing what they’re doing.

On the Tanzeem’s part, the group’s spokesperson says they haven’t approached the government very seriously about their claims. “We wrote a letter to the PTA about this issue once, but wedon’t really trust the government. We are doing this out of our own sense of obligation to Islam.”

This article was originally published in the July issue of Newsline.

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