• Tuesday, September 2, 2014
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    PAKISTAN: Divided Between the Mullah and the Model

    By Zofeen Ebrahim
    KARACHI, Feb 9 (IPS) A spat between a Pakistani actress and an Islamic
    leader has emerged as a vivid
    revelation of a deep split across the nation between different sets of
    values.

    Veena Malik, 27, a model turned actor, was recently ‘evicted’
    from season
    four of Big Boss, an Indian reality television show. Big Boss, a
    three-month
    show, follows the Big Brother format in which a group of about 14
    celebrities
    are invited to live together in a large house, cut off from the outside
    world
    and watched continuously by cameras. Every week or so, the housemates are
    invited to evict one among them. At the end of the game, the last
    remaining
    housemate is declared the winner of that series and receives the prize.

    Malik says "it is a hell of a lot of money," without disclosing
    the amount. She
    hinted, though, that "TV is bigger than Bollywood."

    Since her return to Pakistan, Veena Malik has received flak both from the
    media and the clergy for working in a show in archrival India and, for her
    supposed indiscretions during the show including giving massages, and
    cuddling and hugging her male housemates. She was also reprimanded for
    exposing herself in the way she dressed.

    "I was who I am, I never pretended to be any different," says
    Malik,
    undeterred. "I am an actress and an entertainer. I was not
    representing any
    Islamic group." Those who found her offensive had the option, she
    says, to
    switch off the television channel.

    Malik says much of what she did during the show was "scripted",
    and she
    followed directions. But she says she went further and tried to show
    another
    side of Pakistan, of women who are "educated, liberal,
    independent." The
    outside world, she says, has seen enough of women being thrashed in
    public.

    "Culture is not just about wearing a salwar-kameez and donning a
    dupatta; I
    agree I wore western dresses, even shorts, but then I do so in Pakistan as
    well.
    But more than clothes, I wanted to show them there was another side of
    Pakistan." She added: "I know my values as a Pakistani and a
    Muslim and
    never overstepped these once.

    "I never shied from doing housework, I cooked, I prayed, I never
    resorted to
    abuse or backbiting and bitching when others did."

    But the reaction to her shows that more than ever, the space for liberal-
    minded people in Pakistan appears to be shrinking, with increased Islamic
    fundamentalism on the rise.

    In December the liberal and outspoken governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer,
    was assassinated for supporting a Christian woman sentenced to death under
    the blasphemy law. Lawmaker and former information minister Sherry
    Rehman has been threatened she would "be silenced" for seeking
    amendments to the law.

    Malik has been advised to step up her security in the face of increasing
    Islamic fundamentalism.

    On the television show ‘Frontline’ Mufti Abdul Kawi called
    Veena Malik
    "immoral", and berated her for shaming Islam and Pakistan for
    the way she
    conducted herself on the Big Boss show.

    The programme has drawn mixed reaction. There was widespread support
    from liberals and rights activists on social networking websites, with
    messages praising Malik for her witty repartees. But she drew much
    hostility.

    "I was a soft target because I am a woman. Had it been a Pakistani
    man in my
    place, he’d have returned a hero."

    What hurts most, she says, is the "double standards with which we
    view and
    weigh a man and a woman" in Pakistan. "What is ok for a man is
    not ok for a
    woman, why?"

    "It’s not a matter of being a man or a woman," says Mufti
    Muhammad Naeem,
    head of Jamia Binoria, an Islamic university in the southern port city
    Karachi.
    "Islam does not allow men and women to interact like this, neither
    does our
    culture." But he said there was no need for a cleric to go on air and
    slate a
    woman for her "misconduct".

    "This public display of chastisement by the cleric was not in good
    taste
    either," he said.

    Malik says she agreed to come on the Pakistani talk show "to clear
    all the
    misunderstandings that were being brewed by the media." Instead she
    had to
    brave insults hurled at her by the cleric and the talk show host himself.
    "I was
    not told I’d have to be answerable to a maulana."

    "I believe Veena spoke both with reason and clarity, and had the
    courage to do
    so, for which I commend her, indeed, salute her," says Feryal Gohar,
    a rights
    activist and filmmaker.

    Gohar says a misogynist Pakistani society is becoming increasingly
    "hostile to
    freedom of choice, in particular, when exercised by women. If women are
    not
    axed or stabbed to death for expressing that freedom or right, then they
    are
    buried alive, burnt with acid, raped, or electrocuted."

    When a woman chooses to live her life as she sees fit, she is
    "reviled by a
    society which sees itself endangered," says Gohar. This, she says, is
    founded
    on notions of patriarchy which expects a woman’s complete
    submission.

    Farahnaz Zahidi, a female Islamic scholar and feature writer agrees that
    every
    individual has a right to "lead his or her life as they wish."
    But celebrities, she
    says, "in any capacity" have an "added responsibility when
    they are
    representing their nation, whether they are politicians, actors, singers,
    religious leaders, anybody."

    Zahidi acknowledges that in a largely patriarchal society like Pakistan,
    Malik
    has to "bear with excessive attacks" being a woman.

    Many agree that Malik was right in pointing out to the cleric that there
    were
    many more serious issues in Pakistan that needed the attention of his ilk.
    "These fanatics are worrying about the clothes she is wearing while
    the
    country is being drowned in bloodshed," says Taimur Rehman, a young
    political activist and leader of the music group Laal.

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