It’s the 21st century. Women in Pakistan are winning Oscars, working for NASA, climbing Mount Everest, and yet, somehow they cannot be openly pregnant. It’s such an odd oxymoron because motherhood is considered the most, and in some cases the only, honourable status a woman in Pakistan can have. Yet, Sarwat Gillani received a lot of hate over some pictures that celebrated and acknowledged her pregnancy openly.
To talk about the backlash, we met Gillani at her residence, a spacious bungalow with lots of natural light; it looked as though every corner of the house had been planned and designed carefully. Later in the interview, Gillani told us that she works as an interior designer as well, thus the creative aesthetic of her home.
“I didn’t even know about the hateful comments till my PR manager messaged me, saying ‘Sarwat, what do you want to do about this?” Gillani said that she doesn’t check social media that regularly which is why she was blissfully unaware of how people were reacting to her photos. The photoshoot in question is an innocent and beautiful one, in our opinion. It shows Gillani happily pregnant, with her husband, Fahad Mirza’s head over her growing belly.
“The kind of comments I got from people were really shocking! One woman said ‘Isko sharam nai aati apne husband ke saath ye kartay hue?’ I was like, excuse me? Whose husband am I supposed to be doing this with then?”
Gillani laughed her way through the conversation, which means that thankfully, the social media uproar didn’t get to her. “But I’m honestly amazed at our society. People are okay with item numbers; they’re okay with actresses doing their latkas and jhatkas. They’re even okay with showing marital affairs on television. But if a pregnant woman shares a photo of herself with her husband, then she has committed some kind of sin.”
This is a prevalent concept in our society: women should stay hidden when they’re pregnant, and it makes us wonder where it comes from.
“Pregnant women have normal lives up until the last couple of weeks. We work and go about with our businesses. Just because I’m pregnant doesn’t mean I’m crippled! It’s not a disease or something that needs to be hidden because haye it’s so shameful,” exclaimed Gillani. But the actress believes that there are numerous factors that contribute to this backward mindset, such as religious beliefs and superstitions.
“A lot of it comes from Bollywood too. Have you seen the way they portray pregnant women? They have an almost god-like persona. There is also a lot of superstition around how nazar lagti hai.”
However, before we blame Bollywood, it’s best to take a look at what’s happening on our own screens. Women usually don’t have very respectable characters. They’re either being bullied, or intimidated by their husbands, mothers or other family members. If a woman isn’t a weepy willow then she’ll be an evil seductress. There’s no in between.
“I have made a conscious effort to stop doing regressive characters. I’ll sit and try to reason with writers and directors that what you’re showing on screen isn’t real. Also, the women who are actually watching these TV plays are nothing like the women being depicted on screen. These women are the real heroes; they fight with their families and husbands to drive their own lives. They fight against society and other factors that try to control and oppress them. These real women succeed every day but when they turn on the TV, they’re losing. Basically, when you make such TV plays, you’re telling women that they are losers and have no real worth in the society, even though many times, it’s the women who are the driving force behind men.”
Gillani doesn’t mean to give all the credit to women though. “For society to function effectively, both men AND women are important. Men cannot function without women and women cannot function without men.”
Coming back to the topic of pregnancy, one wonders why there is a taboo or stigma attached to being openly pregnant. Perhaps it’s because pregnancy isn’t discussed in detail? We wondered if Gillani agreed with us on the fact that there needs to be better representation of pregnant women in the media.
“Better representation? There is no representation! When was the last time you saw pregnant women in our TV plays?” Gillani also wonders about actual, pregnant women and why they cannot find work during their pregnancies.
This reminds us of the famous F.R.I.E.N.D.S character, Phoebe Buffay, played by Lisa Kudrow. All of season 4 was about Phoebe being pregnant with triplets but not many people know that Kudrow was pregnant in real life and the show wrote the episodes so that Kudrow could keep working during that time. Unfortunately, Gillani, or any other pregnant actress in Pakistan could never get away with something like that. “Thankfully I’ve been offered to pay a special appearance in a TV serial in which I get to play a pregnant woman.”
Thankfully, the entire industry isn’t conservative in their attitudes towards pregnant women. Gillani maintains that she shot all of Nadeem Baig’s Jawani Phir Nai Ani while she was four to six months pregnant and it was never a problem.
“There was a film I had to say no to recently. It was the perfect film, the kind of script I had been waiting for. But then there are times when I just want to choose motherhood over anything else. But it should be my decision.”
Gillani continues to be an example for pregnant women in Pakistan; not only is she busy working for TV serials, she is also gearing up for directing a theatre play for the Special Olympics. She is busy with an interior design project in which she will be designing a rooftop garden. She also had the time to give us this interview, as well as making sure her son stayed out of trouble while we spoke. More power to you Gillani!
This article was originally published in Instep, 19th March, 2017.