religious matters

In Pakistan, women are driving the demand for Islamic content in relatable, meme-sized bites

The new Islamic media circuit in the neighbouring country includes magazines like 'Hiba' and 'Intellect'.

In bookshops across Pakistan, there is no shortage of religious literature – translations and interpretations of the Quran, books of Hadiths (oral traditions of Prophet Mohammed) and stories of the prophets abound. Book stores stock long, elaborate texts, replete with quotes from scripture and anecdotes from the earliest days of Islam.

But over the past few years, a couple of glossy magazines have stood out from the usual Islamic literature found in Pakistan. These magazines focus on propagating conservative values and ideas but ground it in contemporary concerns of upper middle- and middle-class Pakistanis, whether it is about practicing faith, parenting or dieting. The magazines publish lifestyle features, inspirational personal essays, Q&As, listicles, quizzes and book reviews that are written in conversational English. Instead of sermons by aging clerics, they feature young preachers like Canadian-Muslim Bilal Philips, who is part of a conservative, and often controversial Islamic circuit. And unlike the fashion shoots and interminable Page three-style spreads that are a fixture of Pakistani publications, these magazines have no models, or photos – and even steer clear of what might be considered provocative illustrations.

This is the new Islamic media circuit in Pakistan, which includes magazines like Hiba and Intellect, and women-only private Facebook groups like Deen Sisters, whose over 40,000 members discuss religious issues and post translations of Quranic quotations.

Big demand

The demand for conservative Islamic media has bubbled over online in Pakistan in the last few years, leading to the creation of Instagram accounts of Islamic memes, and religious literature produced by educational institutions.

While theology students might have the time and inclination to pore over arcane texts, study with clerics and interpret Hadith, young people want their Islamic content in relatable, meme-sized bites. These young religious people eschew traditional sources of Islamic instruction for articulate foreign-born clerics whose advice is grounded in the world they can relate to – whether it is concerning wearing the hijab, raising children in the faith, and the influence of the internet.

This is where magazines like Hiba and Intellect come in. They break down religious content and present it in English, using infographics and memes.

“There was an opening, bigger than a typical niche, to cater to the reading interests of a growing, relatively younger and more educated group of people, who have come closer to deen [the faith] after sort of spending a ‘been there-done that’ life,” said Zawjah Farid, who helps edit Intellect magazine. “Most of this target group is comfortable in English, hence it is easier to reach out to them.”

Rana Rais Khan, the editor of Hiba magazine, echoed Farid. “If I talk in Urdu in an abaya, people will look away,” she said. “If I wear an abaya and talk in English, people will listen to me.”

Farid and Khan reflect the audience of the magazines they are associated with. Both are 40-something women who came to Islam late in life, have university degrees and extended social circles, and edit these magazines out of their homes, with the help of a remote editorial team.

Women like them are at the centre of this conservative media circuit. These magazines, where women are the main contributors, tap into a burgeoning group of upper middle- and middle-class professionals in Pakistan – particularly women – who are rediscovering their Islamic faith late in life. They have come to Islam through a process of self-discovery, whether through an encounter with an influential preacher, a life-changing moment, or the realisation that there is something unfulfilled in their lives. This growing segment of urbane Pakistanis wants to help others like them to find answers about how Islam relates to their lives.

While Hiba’s issues are based on different themes, Intellect carries a mix of topics, including pieces on fatwas, which Hiba steers clear of.

A poster available for download on Hiba magazine's website. Image credit: Hiba.
A poster available for download on Hiba magazine's website. Image credit: Hiba.

A space for Islamic content

In the early 2000s, Khan was working as a freelance writer in Karachi, but when she would add religious quotations to her work, editors would cut them out. Her frustration at the lack of space for Islamic instruction in what she calls Pakistan’s “secular” media led to the idea for a new publication.

In 2004, she launched Hiba – a Muslim lifestyle magazine that is published every quarter. A children’s edition followed a couple of years later. Hiba also has a website where it sells merchandise including bumper stickers, keychains and fridge magnets and mugs that carry inspirational quotations in harmony with Islam. It also co-hosts workshops on parenting, and is working on a project at Karachi’s Central Jail.

But the magazine has a vision beyond just promoting Islamic sayings. It wants to show Muslim families how to resolve conflicts and build relationships in line with their faith.

Khan said that Hiba started out as an educational publication about families, bringing up kids and marital relationships. “Our vision of Hiba is to build strong Muslim homes,” said Khan. “What we do is we generally stick to the Quran and Sunnah.”

She added that Hiba has since expanded from being a magazine to a “family resource centre” with the same vision of the magazine – to “build strong Muslim homes” through projects including the magazines for adults and children, a comics series, website and community projects and workshops.

Other publications

The Bait-us-Salam mosque in Karachi, which produces Intellect magazine, also produces several other titles including Radiance, a magazine for children; The Intellect Bulletin, an English and Urdu broadsheet that publishes news of events at the mosque and from Muslim countries, and an Urdu magazine called Fahm-e-Deen.

“We wanted to introduce contemporary issues,” said Farid of Intellect magazine. “What is bothering them? What can they relate to?”

While Hiba’s older readers subscribe to the magazine or buy it at bookstores, younger readers come to the magazine online.

“We do not have political or religious affiliation,” said Khan. “We do not belong to any group. We are just a set of ladies who want to make a difference in society. We are trying to make sure homes do not break up. We give them the Islamic perspective and the wisdom behind that, and how Prophet Muhammad strove so hard to keep people together.”

Saba Imtiaz is a freelance journalist and author currently based in the Middle East. Her twitter handle is @SabaImtiaz. She reported from Pakistan with a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.