Ali, Kamran Asdar. “Courtesans in the Living Room.” ISIM Review, Vol. 15, 2005, pp. 32-33.

This article is open-source and can be freely downloaded here. 

Summary

In the spring of 2003, Pakistan’s GeoTV ran its first serialized television play: Umrao Jan Ada, based on the novel of the same name. (This novel also spawned films in 1981 and 2006, both named Umrao Jaan.)

This article examines questions about how this series, and popular television performances like it, reflect and facilitate discourse on gender politics in present-day Pakistan. The courtesan has long been a stock character in South Asian popular culture, including literature and film, but its recent proliferation is of particular interest: as the author asks, “Why have Pakistan’s liberal intelligentsia and feminists chosen at this juncture to depict the life-world of the prostitute and the figure of the courtesan as metaphors to argue for sexual freedom and women’s autonomy?” (32).

In short, Ali argues that the film’s representation of the Nawabi era as tolerant and inclusive confronts and challenges the “more homogenizing elements of Islamic politics in [modern-day] Pakistani society.”  He also addresses the issue of linguicism within the play: while it confronts issues of sexism and inclusivity, it does so localized entirely within the space of high Urdu culture, “and in doing so remains oblivious to the vital issues of cultural and linguistic diversity within Pakistan” (33).

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