Often abroad you’re asked as a Pakistani, “Did you wear a hijab growing up?” or “Were you allowed to date?” I answer with a sense of pride: “I wasn’t forced to do anything except attend some weddings I didn’t want to.” But now that I reflect - and there are incidents that make me reflect - it’s not always the observable that tells whether a nation is conservative. It’s not only whether you’re forced to cover yourself up, and whether your parents know about your partner, that defines conservatism. There are unobservable institutions in place that birth and cultivate a virulent form of conservatism.

Censorship of media is one such institution. Media means the news, print, Television, film and nowadays social media. In 1949, the Ministry of Industry expressed its views, “In principle Muslims should not get involved in film-making. Being the work of lust and lure, it should be left to infidels.” The film censorship board has historically been strict. After a steep decline in the Pakistani film industry, it’s finally come around with a glimmer of hope; censorship still lurking in the background. This film revival in Pakistan makes us feel perhaps the restrictions have decreased, and the concept of censorship has evolved with time. We see a flood of movies produced - comedies, romantics, dramas. In reality though, this evolution may just be a facade of change.

These films tend to follow a ‘formula’: A heterosexual love story. It involves tensions amongst the lovers’ families and friends, that are all too familiar for the audience. There’s one humorous character who doesn’t hold objective value; the heroine portrayed as the epitome of stereotypical femininity who fails to escape an ‘item number’ - a song often laced with a provocative dance, a catchy beat and not much relevant content that relates to the storyline. These formula-oriented productions tend to pass censorship boards, and barely attract controversial attention, from say, a fundamentalist political party. But do they step beyond amateur Entertainment?

The Ministry of Industry’s statement shows an aversion from anything ‘frivolous’ involving visual pleasure like nudity and affectionate display. What we seem to overlook is that this statement also suffers from an implied aversion from more invisible ‘frivolity’ that makes the audience feel uneasy. And it eventually might allow them to question norms and values that all of a sudden don’t feel so normal. This implied aversion is what’s more dangerous. Everyone’s aware of it but no one speaks of it. But it has heavy consequences. It stops artists from experimenting with ‘real’ and distressing topics which limits them to producing melodramatic dramas and comedies that are fun to watch but don’t really exceed expectations.

This isn’t to say there aren’t a few brave ones, especially in Television, who dare to tackle serious and awkward social issues like rape, child molestation, drug abuse, and so on. Despite their efforts, there’s an ever-present threat if you cross the ‘line’. The threat is growing, almost monstrously, especially when fundamentalist political parties begin to act as though they are ‘the’ moral agents. While censorship boards pose enough obstacles as at is; it now seems we have secondary unofficial boards that in some strange way hold more power.

These far-right groups have created an environment where power is slowly transferring from actual institutions to pseudo-institutions. They distinguish themselves as the nation’s sole moral police, interfering and creeping into anything and everything they define as ‘profane’ and a threat to religion. Their process of intervention is tied with the traditional act of protest, which is a fair and readily available tool in a democratic country. The problem, however, is using this tool violently as a relentless weapon to create havoc in society unless demands are met. They are the acrimonious protectors of Islam, of religion, of anything remotely religious in their point of view.

It’s clear that beliefs regarding morality and censorship held during Partition left an irremovable stain on Pakistani culture. Some groups make sure this stain stays dirty. If uncalled scrutinization continues to dominate the film industry, the parameters of film will remain reduced to shallow Entertainment. It will fail to establish itself as something serious; tackling honest, difficult and beautifully human subjects that make us uncomfortable - like a man with a beard who likes to dance.