Islamabad: Pakistan’s television wars have plumbed new depths in the battle for Ramadan ratings with the country’s most controversial presenter giving away abandoned babies on his prime-time show.
Aamir Liaquat Hussain has presented two babies to childless couples so far during Islam’s holy month. His show’s heady mix of charity, piety and kitsch has made it a hit with viewers but also attracted accusations that he is using religion to generate headlines.
In an episode broadcast last week, Hussain shocked the studio audience by promising the gift of a baby. “This is the beautiful girl who was thrown on a pile of garbage by somebody. See how beautiful and innocent she is,” he said, showing a baby girl to the camera.
He then introduced a shell-shocked couple who were handed the child by the head of a charity that rescues abandoned babies. The tearful wife described the child as a “gift of Ramadan” before her husband described their frustration at not being able to have children.
“These 14 years were full of hardships, people asked to go for second marriage but I remained patient and also asked my wife to be patient,” he said.
The spectacle was repeated for a second time this week. The babies were presented by Mohammad Ramzan Chhipa, who runs the Chhipa Welfare Association. “We have lots of babies that are just abandoned, left in the garbage or other dirty places,” he said.
“Often we just find the bodies so our message that we make is to tell people to bring their babies to us, don’t just leave them.” He declined to discuss how the couples were vetted but said they had previously approached his organisation to adopt children.
Pakistan’s raucous talk shows have huge followings. Controversy is never far away. One TV anchor was sacked after she patrolled Karachi parks, hunting down young couples on illicit rendezvous without chaperones. Another generated headlines by barging into suspected brothels.
The battle for viewers is most intense during Ramadan. Last year Veena Malek — a model perhaps best known for posing nude in an Indian magazine — hosted a rival show, which featured an exorcism. Another programme showed the live conversion of a Hindu to Islam.
Hussain’s Amaan Ramazan, broadcast by Geo, is by far the most popular — despite frequent accusations that the presenter uses the show to publicise extremist causes. In 2008 he was the host of a programme in which Muslim clerics denounced members of the minority Ahmadi sect, saying they deserved to die.
For 12 hours a day during the month of Ramadan he prowls his studio, singing, praying or holding cookery demonstrations in a show described approvingly by some as an “Islamic version of The Price is Right”.
Prizes — ranging from tubs of cooking oil to plots of land, motorcycles and now babies — are showered on an audience drawn from Pakistan’s less fortunate. Viewers call in to donate money around the clock.
Bina Shah, a writer based in Karachi where the programme is filmed, said the stunts came down to a simple calculation of ratings and advertising revenues in a hugely competitive market.
“It just speaks to the commercialisation of everything in Pakistani society including religion,” she said. “And giving away the baby stunt on television was the worst violation of media ethics I can think of.”
Producers of the show could not be reached for comment due to their marathon broadcasts.
Meanwhile, Pakistan is getting its own cartoon superhero to fight corrupt officials and Taliban commanders seeking to shut down the girls’ school where she works.
Burka Avenger, a mild-mannered teacher with secret martial arts skills, uses books and pens to fight the villains and promote education. It is a battle with which Pakistanis are all too familiar in the real world: the Taliban has blown up hundreds of schools in the north-west because they oppose girls’ education. The series will be shown by the Geo network.