Ethical television shows on Pakistani television have proliferated like rabbits. Gone are the benign days of Tariq Aziz giving away microwaves as the audience dutifully clapped along with the synthesizer going tan-tan. Now we’ve got pumped up game shows, morning shows, talk shows, cooking shows…the programming is endless, and most of it is frankly terrifying.

Morning shows in Pakistan inhabit a twilight zone of their own. Rare is the show that doesn’t feature some ridiculous kind of misogyny, political tone-deafness or just plain idiocy. If you’re a guest on one, you’ll be asked about your skincare routine or what you do when your missus is upset with you. (Songs? Flowers? Romantic SMS? Easyload credit?) There are segments where people are paired off—small people, trans people, fat people, people in blackface, so forth—and given makeovers or faux marriages. Sometimes if you’re lucky there will be an earnest middle aged woman showing you how to exercise like the ghost of Jane Fonda from the eighties. It’s a weird world. But equally weird is the game show. If it’s not Amir Liaquat shoving mangoes into your face, it’s Fahad Mustafa being beastly to a child.

It’s astonishing how these game shows continue to be hugely popular in spite of the way their hosts treat the audience. But here is the caveat: adults have a choice, and if you would like to appear on a show and play hilarious and slightly embarrassing games to potentially win a car then that’s really none of my business. But when there are children involved, then the balance shifts. Children don’t have the agency of adults, particularly desi children who are perpetually told that speaking up equals bad manners. Children on a game show are there for ratings—they are cute, so people will watch the programme. As a host, the least one can do is be kind. Sadly, the host of Jeeto Pakistan was neither kind, nor apologetic later.

Fahad Mustafa had a little girl on his show recently, who, amongst other children, made a drawing. She drew Mustafa, who then proceeded to mock her drawing skills, telling her she was, essentially, rubbish at art and should never do it again. Say it, he urged her, on national television—say you’ll never draw again! The poor child, to her credit, giggled and refused which in itself was pretty gutsy. Mustafa didn’t apologize later, once people on social media quite correctly expressed their distaste for his attitude—instead, he essentially told people to stop overreacting and that he speaks to his children the same way so it’s not a big deal if he did the same to someone else’s child. Slow clap here for logic. He also referred sarcastically to “bajis” on Facebook who were making a mountain out of a molehill—those “bajis”, for the record, got the child a scholarship to encourage her to make art. Mustafa, on the other hand, refused to acknowledge that his words and actions could have broken a child’s heart because…well, children don’t really have feelings, evidently.

Scores of shows feature children. So many talk shows all over the world routinely have children on set as guests. None of them are mocked and ridiculed, because the average show host seems to understand that just because they are small does not mean that children don’t count, that they have no rights to their dignity or privacy. It’s not just Mustafa either. Many people don’t watch their words around children because “they aren’t listening”. People beat children because they think children “don’t know” what is happening to them. That’s more or less what abusers think too—that children won’t remember, as if they are blank pieces of paper until they are adults. An adult being mean to a child is bullying, plain and simple. A famous adult, a celebrity, being unkind to a child on national television is bullying amplified by several hundred degrees.

It’s a pity, really, that instead of this being a moment to learn from, Mr Mustafa behaved like all defensive people do—by trying to minimize the action by mocking others. Calling people hysterical is a tired and boring way to deflect attention and it doesn’t work any more. Children matter. Their minds, their opinions and their ideas are all important. The scale is smaller, of course, but feeling valued is a need all humans have, regardless of age. Children who are engaged with in meaningful ways grow up to be adults who are secure, confident and empathetic. If Mr. Mustafa talks to his own children like he did on his show, then there leaves a lot to be desired about his parenting strategy. Children deserve respect and kindness as much as any adult. They learn behavior and how to be in the world from the adults around them, and if this is what we model for them—being cruel for the sake of a laugh, unkind without remorse—then that’s what they will be. Don’t complain when you’re old.

 

n            The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.