Veena Malik and the moral brigade

Pakistan’s electronic media is now a repository of the grand opinion setters of the Urdu press. Almost all channels have employed conservative writers of the Urdu press and given them immense outreach to air their well-known views on nationalism, religion and ‘culture’. Whilst the primary pastime of these wise men is to fan anti-Americanism, their domestic agenda is directly related to what the clergy, since 1947, has wanted Pakistan to be: an unadulterated Islamic state. The only caveat is that none of them can define what an Islamic state and society entails.

In recent days, there has been a concerted campaign to malign Veena Malik, our television starlet who has dared to participate in the famous and brainless Indian reality TV show, ‘Bigg Boss’. Pakistani artists have continuously defied jingoism and performed across the border. Currently, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Atif Aslam are immensely popular in India and their nationality makes little difference to millions who admire them.

Veena’s case is altogether different. She appeared on ‘Bigg Boss’ with Begum Nawazish Ali in the first phase. Viewers voted Ali out while Veena Malik survives on the show as a lone Pakistani and thus far has integrated herself into mainstream Indian TV imperatives. Her conduct on the show is a huge concern for the clergy who think the way she dresses is immodest, her interaction with men is unbecoming and, therefore, she has undermined the great values of an Islamic nation. Incidentally, the fortress of Islam is also known for honour killings, Hudood laws and a wide gambit of discriminatory laws and practices. Never mind, only we are allowed to mistreat our women.

In a nutshell, Veena Malik has challenged the middle class morality embedded in the Urdu press and, by extension, its electronic counterpart. The mere fact that a Pakistani performer is prancing around in western clothes and playing to the Indian viewers’ gallery by indulging in mock-romance with a ‘Hindu’ actor has alerted the guardians of public morality also endearingly known as the ghairat brigade. The imbecile notion of ghairat largely focuses on controlling women and regurgitating militant nationalist narratives through state and non-state actors. Anchor after anchor has prodded hostile commentary on Veena Malik and declared her short of wajib-ul-qatl. This is not too dissimilar to the public floggings of the Taliban variety.

Thus, the brainwashing project of Pakistan’s questionable journalists continues. Hate the US, crush India, fire nuclear weapons to free Kashmir and let mullahs set head money for alleged blasphemers. These are the perennial messages, with a few exceptions, relayed on a continuous basis.

It is also true that Indian TV and its inspiration, the Bollywood circus, resort to the worst kind of commodification of women. By supporting Veena’s choice, one is not condoning all that is wrong with the corporate model of entertainment across the border. However, that is a separate debate. If unofficial estimates are correct, Indian TV channels such as Star Plus and Colors had a huge following in Pakistan before their transmission was banned. This demand for Indian pop culture is a reality and needs to be dealt with. Passing fatwas and declaring cross-border entertainment a ‘Hindu’ conspiracy is simply disingenuous. It is ironic that these same TV channels play Indian film songs to comment on serious political developments.

Given that we live in a country where media regulation is absent and any critical voice is construed as part of an anti-media campaign, challenging such hypocrisy is problematic. Millions of Pakistanis cannot be held hostage to a few moralists and their zeal to purify public culture. Ours is a plural and diverse country and cannot be tailored into a linear, fascist society. The thirty-year-long project to Islamicise Pakistan has faced the innate resilience of our lived cultures. This is why Veena Malik’s right of artistic expression needs to be protected.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 24th, 2010.

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