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Illustrated by Oscar Bray.

‘Men Will Suffer’: A Review of Churails

What Churails succeeds at is drawing the connection between Pakistan’s colonial hangover and its current systemic harassment of women. It shows the immense structural violence exercised against women and how it is justified in the name of culture.

Nov 21, 2020

Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers.
A housewife, a wedding planner, a boxer and a murderer.
These four women are the driving force behind the latest Pakistani drama series, Churails, which means “witches” in Urdu. It is perhaps one of the few TV shows to be produced in South Asia that not only centers its narrative solely on its female protagonists, but also allows them to be portrayed as nuanced, complex individuals instead of reducing them to the stereotypical tropes of faithful wife, sacrificial mother and scheming seductress.
The show begins at a seemingly generic place: Sara Khan, a wife and mother of three, discovers that her husband, Jamil, has been cheating on her. While the show creates space for Sara to accept and grapple with the loss of her well-ordered and perfect life, it also avoids falling into the all-too-common pitfall of victimizing the wronged wife. Alongside her best friend Jugnu Chaudhry, an ex-wedding planner-turned-alcoholic, Batool, a convicted murderer recently released from prison, and Zubaida, a 15-year-old girl who wants to become a boxer, Sara forms a detective agency. The original purpose of this agency was to gather and distribute information about cheating husbands to their wives — for a substantial fee, of course. However, as the show delves deeper into the varied and multifaceted nature of Pakistani society, especially its treatment of women, the scope of the detective agency expands to encompass the solving of a murder, the deadly consequences of a face whitening cream and the unearthing of a sex trafficking ring.
One cannot help but root for the success of this eclectic group, which, in addition to the four main leads, includes a trans prostitute, a lesbian couple, an aspiring actress and a hacker. This is mostly due to the way in which Churails explores their inter-group dynamic. Instead of brushing over the differences between these women, in terms of social class, sexuality and even language, Churails dives deeper into these characteristics and celebrates their complexities. While the detective agency — which is hidden behind a clothing store selling abayas and headscarves — functions as a space free from the constraints generally placed upon women by society, it is clear that the space grants every woman a different freedom. For example, it enables Zubaida to literally escape a physically abusive household and a forced marriage, while Batool, who had been imprisoned for murdering her husband in order to prevent him from raping their child, is able to escape the scathing, judgemental looks of her neighbors. To Sara, however, this space is not necessary to ensure her physical safety, but it allows her to find a sense of achievement outside her domestic life. Refusing to place the struggles these women face in competition with one another, Churails allows each story and character to develop at their own pace. And it is the decision to write these characters as flawed humans, whose motivations oscillate between monetary benefits and the desire to do good, that allows Churails to stand out among the plethora of other TV shows in Pakistan and beyond.
However, this sisterhood formed around spying on cheating husbands and sharing naan in the night is neither perfect nor free from the various societal forces which necessitated its creation in the first place. The earliest indicator of this is the riots that take place in reaction to a murder committed by one of their clients. In response, the surrounding community, already on edge because of the visible presence of the “churails” through their funky posters and graffitied walls, are catalyzed into a mob who attack Halal Designs. The visual imagery of a group of women clothed in black niqabs and colorful veils, armed with bats and liquor bottles — opposing the overwhelmingly male anger directed toward them, as well as their sense of freedom and agency, is striking. Their subversive use of the niqab, which becomes their signature outfit, as a tool to chip away at the patriarchy and hold powerful men (somewhat) accountable for their actions is both darkly humorous and empowering. The sense of agency these women possess, as well as the righteousness with which they direct it, is cathartic to watch, to say the least.
Each episode offers fantastic standalone characters and explores various themes such as classism, homophobia, transphobia and racism. For example, one of the most compelling and heartbreaking scenes occurs when the husband of a client is caught cheating with a male prostitute. The gentle intimacy shared between these two men as they danced together in a cheap hotel room was nothing short of beautiful to see, especially on a medium that has consistently used marginalized communities for mere token representation. Here, they were treated with dignity and, despite being flawed, were still worthy of sympathy.
The success of Churails hinges on its ability to tie these disparate plotlines together to tell a chilling and violently horrifying story. A recurring image that occurs throughout the show is that of a group of young boys engaging in behavior that, at first glance, seems horrifyingly dissonant vis-à-vis the innocence expected of children; they are seen spraying water guns at a little girl in a crib and tearing out the insides of a pregnant woman. However, as the show progresses, the meaning behind this disturbing and explicit imagery becomes clear as it comes to symbolize the dangerous consequences of the indoctrination of misogyny in young, impressionable boys.
At the end of the day, it wasn’t the mob the churails had to fear, but rather the men who comprise the upper echelon of Pakistani society: those who wear branded suits, attend college in England, speak fluent English and are respected as political activists and intellectuals. It is easy to assume that education alone can teach a child right from wrong, yet when these lessons are taught within a patriarchal framework founded on the principle of oppressing those who have been historically marginalized, it becomes laughably easy to brainwash children into believing that masculine dominance signifies bravery and courage.
What Churails succeeds at is drawing the connection between Pakistan’s colonial hangover and its current systemic harassment of women. One of the most disturbing realizations that the audience reaches at the end of this series is that the ringleaders of today’s sex trafficking ring were once young boys who went to prestigious boarding schools in England, where they were handed slingshots and told to murder animals. They internalized the conflation of power and masculinity, and, as the show depicts, grew up learning to mask their ingrained predatory behavior under the guise of a civilized, eloquent and well-educated persona.
Churails begins with a sense of optimism and change, yet as the series becomes progressively darker and unsettling, I was made uncomfortably aware of the immense structural violence exercised against women and how it is justified in the name of culture and antiquated concepts of gender. It is by no means an easy show to watch and can be both mentally and emotionally exhausting at times. The ending, where the churails band together to save one of their own and enact vengeance on her behalf, brings together carefully constructed plotlines and character arcs to enact a sequence that does justice to both and also allows the audience to heave a small sigh of relief. However, the ambiguous and somewhat unsatisfactory ending of Churails is a testament to what the show is: a frank and unapologetic exploration of what it means to be a woman in a society that has entrenched patriarchal structural violence and oppression in its foundation.
Githmi Rabel is Deputy Opinion Editor. Email her at
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