The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority’s latest order banning hand-holding and hugging scenes between characters portraying married couples on the nation’s television is an absurd step of policing intimacy in a society that is fraught with issues related to domestic violence.

Representation of intimacy in the arts – especially on the Pakistani silver screen that is critically acclaimed and has a major following in the South Asian region and diaspora across the world – only undermines artistic freedoms in a growing industry. Such moral policing stems from an absurd and incorrect linkage of sex crimes that are being increasingly reported as of late to the consumption of intimacy and perceived “obscenity”.

Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan himself continues to invoke Bollywood and social media when placing blame on sexual violence, conveniently overlooking the patriarchal desire to exert power over feminine bodies and the lack of certainty of punishment in the justice system that enables impunity. Such a victim-blaming mindset does not belong in this age.

This is the same policy mindset of moral policing that censored TikTok, one of the largest social media platforms used by a number of Pakistanis. It had been a catalyst of digital inclusion in the economy, with high usage in rural and among less literate segments of the population.

Problems with society

What message is Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority trying to give to the country’s audiences? That intimacy between partners is wrong? That one must not show affection? How is holding hands and hugging so outrageous that it elicits a ban? How should media be representing intimacy between partners on screen?

This is especially concerning in a society where marital rape is still not recognised as a crime, and where there is resistance in Parliament to a Bill criminalising domestic violence and similar resistance to Bills outlawing forced conversions of children of minority faiths and child marriages. Worse, the representation of domestic violence continues unabated on television. So is Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority in effect suggesting that it is acceptable for characters portraying married couples on-screen to beat each other up but not hold hands or hug?

It is bad enough that in the past television series depicting child sexual abuse and condemning it were given warnings. What do we want our television shows to be like? Formal talk shows that only discuss acceptable criticism and do not cross the red lines that the state draws? No depiction of reality between consenting adults?

It is not uncommon for couples in Pakistan to be harassed by police asking them for proof of marriage when in public as if unmarried individuals are disallowed from meeting each other under the law, and married couples roam around with their nikahnama everywhere. In reality, moral policing is weaponised to instil fear and elicit a bribe.

Impact on economy

It is perverse to pass such orders, especially in a democracy with a rich heritage and a history of resistance. Such moves will be short-lived, no matter how much the government tries to be a “Zia 2.0” in the words of lawyer Imaan Hazir who compares the cu­r­rent government to dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s regime for its penchant for pandering to the religious right that has little democratic legitimacy.

This perversion at Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority became apparent when the Federal Ombudsperson for Harassment at the Workplace ruled against a senior employee of the electronic media regulator for alleged sexual harassment of a female colleague. It is rather rich for men who harass women at work and demand sexual favours in return for ease at work to pass orders banning intimacy on television. It epitomises what is wrong with our media regulatory framework.

There needs to be a set criterion for officials making decisions on content at media and social media regulatory authorities like Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority. Officials with no social science or media education and a warped and bigoted sense of morality must not be in charge of such decisions and diversity among them in terms of region, religion, gender, ethnicity, qualifications, sexual minority status and class should be factored in.

Pakistanis are a warm and affectionate people who exhibit these important qualities in their everyday interactions with people. Let us not pretend that we do not hold hands or hug. Let the arts be representative of our society, let the right to freedom of expression and artistic freedom be protected, and let’s not allow the state to become the nanny of a populace that is perfectly capable of choosing what kind of media content – of which there is a sufficient variety – it wants to consume.

Censorship only suppresses a society further, encourages people to rebel more, impacts the economy and leads to brain drain due to the suffocating societal conditions it creates. Pakistan is a diverse, inclusive country with a rich heritage. Folk love tales of Laila-Majnu, Sassi-Pannu, Adam Khan-Durkhanay, live on for a reason: we resist being told whom or how to love.

This article first appeared in Dawn.