Why 'vigil aunty' caused Pakistan media storm

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Media captionMaya Khan confronts a couple

It is a sunny day in Karachi and a young couple are stealing precious moments with each other in a private corner of a local park and as they inch ever closer together...

A woman moves at speed towards them and interrogates the bewildered pair relentlessly about the precise nature of their relationship.

"Do your parents know your whereabouts?" The pair look stunned.

This is Maya Khan, easily the most talked-about woman in Pakistan at the moment, and the events described above unfolded on an hour-long live television morning show broadcast on 17 January.

In that hour she and a group of like-minded women were an informal moral police force, popularly described as "vigil aunties", hounding couples, at least one of them married.

Pakistan is a largely conservative country, but after the programme was broadcast members of the liberal elite vented their fury on social websites at what they said was intrusion. Pakistan's English-language media also took up the cause.

The footage of these women hounding couples who were simply sitting together and talking prompted shock and outrage.

Maya Khan apologised - twice. A letter, reportedly signed by the CEO of Samaa TV which broadcast the show, said the apology was not unconditional enough and she was dismissed earlier this week.

Public affection

As the dust settles, what does the debacle tell us about Pakistani society?

I went to a park in the capital, Islamabad, to ask some couples how they felt about going out in public.

Image caption Maya Khan's apology was not enough to save her job

"It's very difficult to go to places with a girl. Even if I want to hold her hand people look at you in a bad way.

"I am actually quite religious, even though I'm wearing jeans, but people would look at me strangely and say I'm not a good Muslim or person," one man says.

A young lady said: "Yes, I heard about what Maya Khan did, but I don't care what people think. I will hold my husband's hand, I am perfectly comfortable with it even if others aren't."

Her husband said: "There are some places where I can show public displays of affection like holding her hand but there are also places where it is difficult to do that."

You do see public displays of affection in Pakistan, but rarely between men and women. It is more common to see young men, particularly those from poorer backgrounds, holding hands, fingers tightly interlocked.

This is not seen as a display of homosexuality - which is illegal in Pakistan - but a sign of male camaraderie.

But there is a genuine problem here for youth in Pakistan as there are few recreational spaces. There are even fewer for those couples who do not come from privileged backgrounds and cannot afford to go to restaurants.

Recently, the assembly of the province of Punjab passed a resolution banning "objectionable" music concerts. What constitutes "decency" and "indecency" is hotly debated, with many different interpretations depending on what your stance is.

What is clear is that a battle between conservatism and liberalism is brewing in Pakistan.

As real spaces for youth contract, social media platforms are expanding. Largely driven by liberal youth, the power to create pressure groups and galvanise people towards activism is becoming clear.

One person on Twitter, @kursed (Abdullah Saad), observes: "Online activism can only supplement real-life activism, not replace it. But it's a huge force multiplier."

Ratings battle

This episode also exposes the pitfalls of Pakistan's media, freer than ever before and often referred to as the "third pillar of society".

But the public believes the media act as if they have unquestionable authority - which might go some way towards explaining how a group of women took it upon themselves to police people's personal affairs in public, on live television.

Pakistan's media are still finding their feet and lack a code of conduct.

For now, the courts may offer some people protection from intrusion.

Human rights activist Farzana Bari recently appeared on a state-run TV show quoting article 14 of the Pakistan penal code, which allows a person to take legal action against someone who publicly humiliates another.

But litigation is expensive and most people may simply prefer to be able to go about their affairs without being hounded.

The private media industry is burgeoning in Pakistan and has grown largely unchecked in a battle for ratings.

Many commentators argue that populist programmes - and in some cases "vigilante television" - are an inevitable consequence of such a system.

For others, Maya Khan is just a symbol of a conservative mindset intent on attacking personal freedoms.

But although Maya Khan's show prompted strong feelings, other shocking incidents have not had the same reaction. Pakistan's media were accused of glorifying the killer of Punjab governor Salman Taseer who had criticised controversial blasphemy laws.

And when a cleric called on TV for a member of the minority Ahmedi sect to be killed, there was little outcry when someone did so the following day. Some subjects, it seems, are deemed too risky for comment by the media.

There are inconsistencies, but Pakistanis are trying to define their own conduct and standards. This is just one facet of the battle for the country's social landscape that lies ahead.

Although the backlash has been fierce, Maya Khan's defenders have been vociferous too. One of her fans, Asma Mehmood, rose to her defence.

"She is a great anchor and great human being. She did a mistake and apologised. Now every single channel is doing a show on her and invading her privacy and getting ratings. What will you call that?"

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