Poster Girl For An Apologist Pakistani Athlete

By Aisha Fayyazi Sarwari

Pakistan is looked at as a country on edge, a country where a fanatic is a breath away from detonating a nuclear device. The potential for that is not the debate here. What really indicates the direction the country is taking is the advertizing and the psychological nuances they are choosing to project from their focus group in their TV ads.

A telecom giant recently launched a campaign where they promoted a Pakistani athlete who won the country a gold medal in SAARC games as a brand ambassador for the cell phone company. The most distinctive part of the ad is that it has an unveiled Pakistani woman, wearing track pants running. What starts off as a benign narrative of a young girl child with aspirations to become an athlete turns to a religious festival with costume and hymn. So distinct was the religious overture that it made one wonder what was being sold was so disturbing to audiences that it had to be packaged in something safe. There were little girls with Arab styled hijabs, a mother with hijab, a father with a beard, a lot of praying and what is the final result, a religious inspiration which eventually leads the athlete to success – with the help of a cell phone company that allows roaming overseas – The protagonist listens to a call to prayer (Azan) back home on her cell phone right before the games begin in a foreign country. This is the ultimate thrill of the advertisement.

A closer introspection revels the concept that was so outrageously horrifying to sensitivities of the audience that the filmmaker had to code it in Holy Grail: A woman running.

It is akin to giving women wings (and you know Pakistani women are now fighter pilots bombing Taliban targets), where a woman can explore territories unhindered, and more importantly unsupervised. We see in the film that while she is shown finally in full, and not pieces, running by the sea side, her own brother rides a bicycle with her. Here is the problem though: If the Taliban were to rate this ad, technically it would fall short in most categories of their version of Islamic injunctions.

But is this really a true projection of the masses that use the postpaid SIM being advertized, or are advertizing companies projecting their own version of a psychological need onto the general populous?

This pseudotherapeutic discourse, common to many advertisements promises emotional comfort through the use of products/services that are inherently incapable of providing such comfort.

The danger in making a mistake in identifying or pegging the wrong psychological feeling to sell a product is that it can reinforce the negative trajectory of a country that is already struggling with a war of identity, and where religion is used to maim and terrorize people into a ghastly war called “The War on Terror.” The Taliban are amassing, according to WikiLeaks with help from the Pakistani Spy Agency ISI, inside Pakistan to attack what they feel are American targets. All this while the economic cost of terrorism to Pakistan in this war is estimated at USD 1.4 billion in the year 2009 alone and FDI decreased by 45% this year according to IIF.

This war is fueled by cultural sensitivities that continue to be offended in Pakistan and are at a constant high since the Facebook ban. Pakistan has, entirely through an incorrect and revisionist reading of its independence labeled itself Islamic, and branded itself as the champion of all “global minority” complexes. As more and more industries close, fewer investments in textiles, ICT and communication sectors are recorded, the less our youth is inclined to modern education and more to recruitment in the name of religion. A documentary by Shaemeen Obaid Chinoy outlines how the Taliban successfully brainwash and deploy young boys for a suicide bombing mission that has killed thousands in the past 10 years.

The stakes of using religion in advertizing have never been higher than they are now. Filmmakers are juggling fireballs and it’s not infotainment anymore. This telecom company, once a market leader is reacting to competition by using a technique called resonance, coined by Tony Schwartz. And as fancy as the name is, it buys into people’s inner most common deepest feelings to enlist emotions that mean something great to them. This is dangerous because it can not only miss out on the real emotional triggers but can also create them through graphic imagery and moreover, reinforce religion as an emotive response tool. Religiosity for Pakistan already is blanket we just can wean ourselves off of.

As the advertizing agency searches for a more effective mode of persuasion, this advertisement is among the most desperate as it turns to the most obvious philosophical dilemmas of religion to solve a problem that needs perseverance and hard work. All athletes will credit their success to partly chance and over 10,000 hours of hard work. Malcom Gladwell refers to the 10,000 hours rule that enables most genius to emerge.

But this defense of faith faces a huge hurdle: God not only cares about us but has set up precise moral norms and liturgical practices that we must follow to ensure our eternal salvation. Without such specificity, religion lacks the exhilarating and terrifying possibilities that have made it such a powerful force in human history. So then what if the conditionality was not met?

What if our track star had not heard the Azan or remembered the divine in the moment that required sheer turbo force of strength from her, as she stood next to rival India? Would she be doomed?

If you’re a young woman representing your country in track pants as opposed to shorts, and end up winning, can’t the nation be proud of you and own you as their own unless ofcourse you have summoned God to your side before you began, and a specific God, Allah. Is there no room for a Christian or Hindu Pakistani who could’ve won this tournament and crowned. Would there be such a video ad made in the honor of her religion.

On another level the call of religion in advertizing is a move away from rationality, because rational beliefs are vulnerable, and with today’s technology it is easy to knock off a competitor’s innovation quickly or play on his marketing turf. Religious bonds on the other hand are impossible to break.

The question we must ask ourselves if we truly would not accept an ad where we celebrated a simple triumph of the spirit of women and honored just that. A woman won Pakistan an award. So must we make her the apple of her veiled mother’s eye, and the honor of a bearded fathers’ and the protection of a brother and should she have to belong, has she no to feet to stand on? Or even run with?

Regardless of the preferences of our track star, it is sheer injustice not to let this story be one of simply a Pakistani girl with will power, dedication, hard work and faith in herself: Fast vanishing traits amongst Pakistanis.



Filed under Pakistan

22 responses to “Poster Girl For An Apologist Pakistani Athlete

  1. Majumdar

    Aisha boudi is making a mountain of a molehill. Such kinds of ads happen all the time on Indian TV. Indian readers may remember the TV ad where Yuvraj Singh (or maybe Sehwag dunno) whacks a ball, there are some old Hindu ladies praying, a mullah offering namaaz, some nuns offering a prayer and lo behold!!! the ball crosses the fence and India wins the match. It may not be very healthy but does no harm either. Life goes on. Such ads reflect the mores of the society not vice versa.


  2. YLH

    Well J-man’s country should not have such third rate religious symbolism.

  3. مومی وزیر اعظم ، وزیر اعلی اور مضبوط صد

  4. مومی وزیر اعظم ، وزیر اعلی اور مضبوط صد

  5. That is pretty much how it is, religious sentiments, like all other sentiments, help sell products to the masses. I saw that ad and did think, “wah, lagta hai is neh khud toh kuch kiya hi nahi.”

    Still, I am slightly comforted by the fact that they are moving away from the traditional heroes, even if that means shrouding the unlikely ones in a religious cloak, for acceptability.

  6. Octavian

    Wow. A bit of analytical overkill me thinks.

    I know we are all hating on the Talibans these days but come on! Is this advert supporting known terrorists and advocating medieval sharia? What would you have preferred as symbols – an exposition on the Wealth of Nations, followed by some Jinnah fetish on secularism a la Turkey?

    In any country of the world, be it Canada, or the US or even the UK, symbols of the dominant faith group crop up from time to time (umm Christmas anyone?).

    I think if your reaction to this kind of advert is a coronary, you seriously need to re-evaluate your reality. Have you met any Pakistanis / walked around in any part of Pakistan?

    Hating on people for having a beard, covering their head or being glad to hear the azan is not a sign of extremism.

    BTW this lass is, from what I hear from a rather humble background, and this kind of attire is expected from her family members.

    I’m sure if they were sporting some sexy strapless numbers off the catwalks of Lahore your pain would have been assuaged.

    Hopefully when one of those chicks wins something, we can have a nice advert with sexy short shorts, some Absolut Vodka and people grinding in a club to shake it like ya mean it.

  7. Midfield Dynamo

    I agree with the author, whereas we believe in Islam that every moment of our lives is ordained by the will of Allah, there is no need to smack it in the face, at every given opportunity… in doing so we are only stating the obvious.

  8. Hayyer


    Not at all. Those ads in India promote the secular discourse; in Pakistan this ad does the reverse.
    It is an example of what can happen when you follow the line that A A Khalid advocates on a different thread-promote athletics among girls within Islam .

    Before you all descend upon me like a ton of bricks, let me offer further provocation by saying that it is the same discourse that spun differently enables the Mullah to justify suicide bombings.

    Muslim girls should be allowed to indulge in athletics and wear shorts, as Sania Mirza did, without invoking religious sanction, or needing it.
    At which point someone may ask where do you stop exposure-Can you expect Muslim girls to take part in swimming events wearing those abbreviated clothes.

    The answer surely is that it is for men to control their sexual impulses even if they cannot control their imagination. Why should women be denied their rights just because men refuse to control themselves?

  9. Girish

    I saw the ad. First, this ad is almost as long as a short feature! The advertiser must have loads of money to be spending on a campaign like this.

    Regarding the ad itself, the religiosity is there, but I don’t see it quite so negatively. This is clearly a story of a girl from a modest background. Not poor, but solidly middle-class. The parents, particularly the mother who is a prominent part of the ad, are shown as being conservative, but they are modern in outlook, encouraging their daughter in something she loves doing and something that girls are often not encouraged to do in our parts of the world. She is never shown wearing even a dupatta, leave alone a more onerous covering. There are two parts of this very long ad where religion comes in – initially when the girl hears the azaan and then again when her mother is shown praying.

    One may object that there is any religion at all in the ad, but is it so unrepresentative of middle-class Pakistani society? Is this family not believable? Relative to what one sees in reality with the cricket team, with members sporting beards upto their chests and praying collectively on the fields, this family is shown as incredibly modern and forward thinking.

  10. Majumdar

    Hayyer mian,

    I think we are all overreacting. An ad is supposed to sell product not create Jinnah’s Pakistan or Nehru’s India or whatever. And if that has to happen, the ad filmmaker has to speak in the audience’s language (basically what Octavian has referred to). And that is what the filmmaker has done.


  11. Hayyer


    Advertisers appeal to the market, so following your line, they are pitching at a market that is responds to religious tactics.
    What is the reality. Did that girl get into athletics the way the ad pitches it? Or is the ad part pandering to the mullahs, if it is not a product of the mullah conspiracy?

  12. Hayyer

    ‘that responds to’ not is responds to. Sorry.

  13. libertarian

    @Mackers: I saw that ad and did think, “wah, lagta hai is neh khud toh kuch kiya hi nahi.”

    Exactly. This may be why over-religious people under-perform in every human endeavor. Except reproducing like rabbits, where they’re tops (a US comedian urged Christians to go home and f**k for Jesus 🙂 ). Can’t argue because they do finally win out in jannat/heaven/rebirth …

  14. simply61

    The discourse turned entirely into India/Pak similarities and differences,Lahore babes vs. more conservative sections of the society and Jinnah and non Jinnah versions of Pakistan and the intent of the author was missed entirely, I think.
    The author has used this one advert as an example to make a larger point about the trend towards the all smothering blanket of ‘religion’ in present day Pakistani society.From that perspective it was a well written piece.

  15. Bade Miya

    “Why should women be denied their rights just because men refuse to control themselves?”

    Because, as one of my Pakistani friends told me, men west of Indus have a hard time controlling their libido. Also, they are better endowed(I don’t agree with this one) which is why Sania bhabi chose the lout from across the border.

  16. kashifiat


  17. aliarqam

    A good piece, now at the begining of Ramadhan, you will see a load of bullshit in the Ads exploiting the religious sentiments, I can say Jamat slamization of Ads, reminds me me of Zia’s PTV, where such practices are normal with the spiritual guidance of HH maududi fellows…

  18. YLH

    One such ridiculous ad is the Mezan Oil ad with that crook Aamir Liaqat Hussain.

  19. kashifiat


  20. Ammar

    Ironically religion is intertwined in every affair of our public life. From advertising to heinous acts of terrorism all are analyzed in the paradigm of Islam. Religion is solely a matter of an individual and a spiritual domain. The turmoil in Pakistan can be attributed to politicization of Islam, unless we amend this like Bangladesh intolerance in society will continue to foster.

  21. Naeem Bajwa

    YLH, what a downfall, for this crook Amir Liaqat.. from being a minister, to a TV persona to promoting cooking oil.
    Bye the way, where Zaid Hamid has disappeared, also there was once a famous lady by the name of Farhat Hashmi.