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When Pakistan's politics get tough, Pakistanis respond with memes and humor

Imran Khan, Pakistan's former prime minister, during an interview in Lahore, Pakistan, on June 2.
Betsy Joles
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Imran Khan, Pakistan's former prime minister, during an interview in Lahore, Pakistan, on June 2.

LAHORE, Pakistan — Internet humor related to the current political situation in Pakistan — following former Prime Minister Imran Khan's faceoff last month against the ruling party and powerful military establishment — is ubiquitous.

For Pakistanis, during a highly charged moment in their country's history, humorous content serves as both an emotional release and a subtle way to critique the polarized political scene and its players. Memes capture the exasperation of Pakistani citizens embroiled in overlapping crises, and highlight the evolution of political commentary in a country where expression is often strictly policed.

On May 9, Khan was arrested in an ongoing corruption case, setting off a wave of unrest by supporters who saw his detention as politically motivated. Protesters burned army installations — including the home of the Lahore corps commander.

Pakistan's leadership has characterized these acts as an attack against the state. Many protesters have been arrested — some registered on terrorism charges or handed over to specialized military courts. The Supreme Court later found Khan's arrest, carried out by paramilitary forces, to be illegal.

Since May 9, the internet has exploded with memes, TikTok videos and Instagram reels recapping days of protests and arrests, and making jokes about the scenes that came out of them.

One widely shared meme sums up the dizzying effects of the current situation. In a format that often resurfaces in Pakistan, it shows a group of men dancing to an early 2000s Pakistani pop hit, "Nach Punjaban." The camera lurches among dancers representing different aspects of the scenario surrounding Khan's May 9 arrest — internet blockages, a bottle of ketchup pilfered from an army general's home, a wheelchair-bound Khan appearing in court.

The filming captures the chaotic pace of the Pakistani news cycle, and the number of dancers jammed into a small room is analogous to the information overload the country's social media users feel while following a single, momentous political event.

The visual humor of Pakistan's memes is instant and direct

Despite heavy censorship and periods of military dictatorship, humor in Pakistan has always found a way. Visual humor plays an important role in getting political messages across, says longtime artist and cartoonist Sabir Nazar, who is based in Lahore. "You cannot control the image. It has a kind of subversive quality," he says.

A recently published cartoon by Sabir Nazar shows a boot weighing down a scale with Imran Khan on the other side.
/ Courtesy of Sabir Nazar
Courtesy of Sabir Nazar
A recently published cartoon by Sabir Nazar shows a boot weighing down a scale with Imran Khan on the other side.

One of Nazar's recent cartoons shows Imran Khan holding onto a scale while a large boot — resembling one from an army uniform — weighs down the other side. Another cartoon shows a structure labeled "state" with broken pillars, engulfed in flames.

Encapsulated in much of the humor is an understanding of issues of justice, human rights and democracy in Pakistan, which has not held elections since Khan was removed from power through a no-confidence vote last year.

"Memes in Pakistan frequently have a lot of biting political currency," says Ahmer Naqvi, a writer in Karachi focusing on pop culture in Pakistan. The meme format is well-suited for Pakistani humor, he says, because it captures the multilayered reality of social and political issues while bypassing censorship. "This form of expression is anonymous. It's very direct. And it allows you to do some social commentary."

An anonymous Instagram account called catboy_jinnah,run by a university student in Karachi who hides his identity to avoid abuse online, likes to poke fun at politics — alongside more innocuous posts that capture the humor and charm of everyday life in Pakistan. However, sometimes the underlying context of the posts is more serious.

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Moulana Jinn ibn Hurairah (@catboy_jinnah)

One post from May incorporates a photo of men sitting on a sofa holding a portrait of Pakistan's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, while a fire is seen raging behind them.

Catboy_jinnah mostly keeps his personal opinions about social and political matters veiled. "Irony is more dangerous," he says, referring to the potential for satirical humor to challenge political and social ideas.

Humor allows for social commentary while skirting censorship

Internet content related to Pakistan's current events proliferates despite a restrictive environment. Within hours of Khan's arrest, the Pakistani government shut off the country's mobile broadband, limiting access to social media sites, including Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. (Content continued to be posted and shared on TikTok). Internet users took to VPNs to share protest memes.

Police detain a supporter of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan in Lahore, Pakistan, Wednesday, May 10, 2023.
K.M. Chaudary / AP
Police detain a supporter of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan in Lahore, Pakistan, Wednesday, May 10, 2023.

According to U.S. watchdog organization Freedom House, Pakistani internet users face numerous barriers to access, including internet shutdowns and government regulations that dictate what content can be posted online. Pakistan's telecommunications authoritycan regulate or ban content that it considers anti-Islamic, a threat to public order and security or contrary to decency and morality. Internet regulations extend to media outlets, which were banned by Pakistan's media regulator in March from broadcasting Khan's speeches.

More recently, direct mentions of Khan all but disappeared from mainstream media coverage in Pakistan after the country's Electronic Media Regulatory Authority issued a directive related to people involved in the protests.

Nazar, the artist, started creating political cartoons as an art student in Lahore more than 40 years ago, during the rule of military dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, who unleashed extreme levels of censorship after imposing martial law in the 1970s. "There was a kind of vacuum for humor and satire not [just] in journalism, but in the entire society," Nazar says.

During this time, comedy found a way to break through censorship, even via programs on state-run television. Fifty-Fifty, a sketch comedy show inspired by Saturday Night Live, relied on satire, slapstick and irony to highlight political and social issues such as police brutality and government repression.

Political humor found its way further into mainstream TV in the decades following Zia's rule, when private news channels became operational and were given leeway to air comedy shows — even those that made jokes about political figures — alongside more straightforward political talk shows.

Memes help Pakistanis cope with overlapping crises

That comedic culture took on new life with the internet, especially among Pakistanis under age 30, who make up most of the population. Many of them were first attracted to Imran Khan's party, PTI, because of its mastery of social media — and were among those who gathered to protest last month in defense of the party leader.

PTI's official website has a dedicated meme page to reshare internet posts from Khan's supporters and the party sometimes shares memes on its own channels. PTI's official Instagram account recently posted a meme based on a scene from Spiderman where Peter Parker, the Spiderman character, stops a subway car from going off the rails by holding it back with his body. In the meme, the train is labeled as Pakistan and Spiderman is Imran Khan.

Memes can also serve as a coping method for Pakistanis dealing with overlapping political, economic and climate crises, says Sahar Habib Ghazi, a Karachi-based journalist who frequently posts about social and political issues on her Instagram account, 2030mama. "We have a lot of communal tools when it comes to managing trauma," she says, "and a good way of sharing trauma is humor."

View this post on Instagram A post shared by 2 0 3 0 M A M A | Sahar (@2030mama)

Last month, Habib Ghazi created ameme of a then-PTI leader, Shireen Mazari, being scolded by her daughter for trying to flash a victory sign after being released from an Islamabad jail.

Around a week after her release, Mazari announced she was quitting PTI and politics altogether, citing her family's well-being as one factor in her decision. Dozens of other former PTI leaders have also resigned in recent weeks, and some have joined a newly formed party. These decisions, which Khan blames on external pressure, have left him increasingly isolated.

More than a month after Khan's arrest, space for public dissent among his supporters has shrunk significantly as the government moves forward with trials for people it believes were involved in the destruction of state property.

For the creator behind one meme and digital art Instagram account,_digink_, this environment is a deterrent to posting about political matters. "I've been warned multiple times by people not to do political stuff," he says. He does not want NPR to identify him and keeps his Instagram anonymous because he received threats for earlier posts.

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Tamkenat (@tamkenat)

Meanwhile, other social media users have shifted to taking subtle jabs at the crackdown on PTI and its supporters, and making veiled jokes about the military's entrenched power in many parts of Pakistani life. One Instagram comedian recently made a video thanking the army for the pleasant June weather, while furtively avoiding eye contact with the camera as if the statement were forced.

Although the protests have died down, internet humor retains a political edge among Pakistanis who've learned through multiple governmental upheavals that serious matters of the state are most digestible when they're made the butt of a joke. But many still suspect the military will have the last laugh.

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Betsy Joles
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