In the male dominated culture of northwestern Pakistan, women don’t go to the cinema at all.
Increasing militancy and extremism in the region have seen women become more socially isolated, barred from leaving their homes without men.
But some have had enough. Asia Calling’s Mudassar Shah recently met one group of women who are pushing to be allowed to public recreational space, like a women’s only space to watch films.
This dingy cinema hall is thick with the smell of smoke.
Almost a dozen men have come to watch a film at this cinema in Peshawar, just 40 miles from the Afghan border.
Men shout and hoot as the hero of the film comes on screen.
Going to the cinema here is a male-dominated affair. Often the films are even pornographic. Women are definitely not allowed inside.
That’s not the only problem. Over the years militants have also targeted move theatres, while cinema owners, and actors, have received death threats from the Taliban. Markets and shops that sell videos and DVDs have also been attacked.
But while hardliners see cinemas as a sign of social decay, in Pashtun society movies are one of the only sources of entertainment.
Sanna Ejaz is a women’s rights activist with local NGO, Shirkatgah.
Together with her colleagues, Sanna has conducted a survey in four districts of the province to identify women’s needs.
“We live in war zones where we suffer from trauma. Mental satisfaction and psychological contentment can only be possible if women are engaged in sports or if parks or cinemas are built for women,” she explained.
“We have included the construction of playgrounds, parks and cinema for women in our charter of demands.”
The results of the survey have been shared with the local government. But it won’t be easy.
Women in Peshawar largely remain in their houses at all times, busy with household chores and looking after the family and their children.
Without a male member of the family, women don’t even leave the house. Neelam Rahim is from Swat valley. She says it’s time for a change.
“Most women have been confined to their houses since the Talibanization in Swat valley. So they need recreational spaces where they can go out of the house and enjoy some free time.”
Rahim continued, “there is no harm in women going to the cinema to watch movies, but they can’t go because the men always are always calling out to them, harassing them,”
Sanna and her organization are working hard to see recreational spaces, including cinemas, built for women.
But they are facing resistance.
Amara Shah Jehan works as a researcher at the government directorate of culture in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
She says the government doesn’t have any plan to open up cinemas for women.
“I am sure that families would rush to cinema if the filmmakers would keep families in mind while making films. Unfortunately, there is no film that family members can watch together under one roof of a cinema. The dialogue and songs are vulgar therefore the cinemas can’t attract families in our area,” Jehan said.
Then there’s the resistance from men too.
Twenty four year old Wali Jan, 24, studies religion after college.
“Wherever we can stop women from going to the cinema, we will,” Jan stated.
“I am sure that thousands of young men will take every step to stand against any such act from the government or any organization. One should not forget that in this province our political parties have even banned pictures on posters, so construction of a women’s cinema is out of question,” Jan said.
But women like Sanna Ejaz aren’t taking no for an answer.
“Everyone has the right to agree or disagree with anything, but if they try to use force to stop us from getting our rights then we also know how to resist and take a stand,” Ejaz stated.