They say there is some truth to every stereotype—that generalizations passed down as fact have some universal merit. Models and actresses and their intelligence levels. Pakistanis and their religious zealotry. Veena Malik and her supporters would vociferously disagree on all counts.
The Pakistani actress and model has made it beyond mere international headlines, into the realm of viral Internet notoriety. As one of the stars of an Indian reality show called Bigg Boss, in which celebrities live together in a house for three months without outside contact and endure being filmed 24/7, Malik recently became the focus of criticism by a religious figure and a well-known TV journalist in Pakistan.
According to the journalist, Kamran Shahid, and the Muslim cleric he invited onto his news show, Frontline, Malik had some questions to answer about her representation of Pakistan and Islam on Bigg Boss (she was with evicted in December 2010, not long before a winner was announced).
“Sections of Pakistani society allege that you have brought Pakistani culture into disrepute by going to India. The clothing you wore, and the way you behaved, in addition to how you interacted with the people there, were not representative of the ideology of Pakistan, its culture, and its people,” Shahid asserted in what turned out to be a religious inquisition by a journalist who professed to be “neutral on the issue.”
Malik responded during the interview that the “allegations are baseless” and that she was invited onto the reality show as a celebrity and entertainer, not as an example of “a working woman in an office.” Speaking from a film set in India, she told me that she had no idea what was planned for her during Shahid’s live interview. “I just went to talk about my experience on Bigg Boss—I didn’t know they had set a trap for me like that, it was all very sudden.”
“Once I was on the show, I had no choice but to come up with a solid response and raise my voice about this,” she recounts. “I didn’t want them to say such things about me, so I decided to stand up for myself.”
And she did, even after Shahid, an apparent spokesperson for the monolith of Pakistani cultural and religious values, inferred that she was “obscene and vulgar” on the reality show.
“If I had covered my head with a dupatta [traditional scarf], you people would have accused me of being a Sati Savitri [a symbolic figure of an extremely chaste and obedient woman],” Malik responded. To which Shahid replied, “No, we would have appreciated that.”
Enter the Cleric
But the real games began when Shahid deferred judgment of “the issue” to a cleric whom he regularly brings on the show as a moral compass for his guests. The cleric, observing—more than once—that “God has blessed [Malik] with beauty and charm,” proceeded to speak on behalf of the entire “180 million people [of Pakistan] who believe that what [she] did was wrong.” He added: “100 percent of them think that you have disgraced Pakistan, as well as Islam.”
Malik, urged by Shahid to speak from the depths of her conscience, replied: “I have not done anything wrong, I am just an entertainer. If anyone can prove that I violated either Islamic or state law, you can punish me for that.”
But when further pressed by the cleric about her moral leanings—including a most curious view that “no one in Pakistan could look at images of her in the presence of their daughters”—Malik reacted full force against her condemner, accusing him of being unchaste, immoral, and improper himself.
“Since you’re on the subject of Islam, let me tell you that you are not allowed to set eyes on me in my present condition,” she declared. “All clerics can cast first sight at a woman, but if they look at her a second time, they must be punished. You deserve to be punished.”
In her passionate response to the cleric—who admitted he had never even seen an episode of the reality show (which also happened to feature Hollywood star Pamela Anderson)—Malik proceeded to turn the tables on him while raising a number of serious issues that have plagued Pakistani society.
“If you want to work for the glory of Islam, there are plenty of opportunities for you,” she scolded. “What are politicians doing? Bribery, thievery and killing in the name of Islam. There are so many things to talk about there. Why Veena Malik? Because Veena Malik is a woman? Because Veena Malik is a soft target for you? What has Veena Malik done? Did Veena Malik kiss someone? Did Veena Malik wear shorter clothes than Pakistani actresses have worn in India in the past? There are many other things for you to be attending to. There are Islamic clerics who are raping the very children who they are supposed to be teaching in their mosques and so much more.”
Unsurprisingly, her daring response has generated a great deal of attention, some of it negative. When I ask Malik whether she’s had reason to fear for her safety since the interview, she mentions receiving “a few letters from people who say they are going to kill me,” but her natural reaction to such threats is reflective of the persona that was revealed in the interview: pragmatic, honest, and courageous.
“I believe in looking into the eyes of reality rather than away from it” she tells me. “I know my life is in danger in Pakistan. But at the end of the day, I have to go back to my country—that’s my country, those are my people, so I have no choice. I am not going to get political asylum in some other country.”
While she is aware of the attention her remarks have generated, she says grabbing the spotlight was the last thing on her mind. Defending herself—“my prestige, my respect, and being a woman and my place in the society”— was foremost.
During the Frontline interview, she noted that her modern approach to lifestyle and fashion is absolutely not unique in Pakistan, and is in fact widespread. “Tell me what doesn’t happen in this society,” she said to the cleric. “Go look at clips on the Internet, see what’s taking place amongst the upper class. The world has become a global village. Do you think we don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors? Why can’t we move beyond these things?”
But when I ask how she feels about the attention she’s received, she answers her own question about why her fellow Pakistanis are still grappling with the reality that so many of their peers are embracing contemporary habits and values.
“Lots of women, lots of young people in Pakistan, know the facts, know what is happening in the society but are not so vocal about it,” she says. “Yes, there are people praising me, who are appreciating me. But I would say that rather than praising me or appreciating me, people have to have the guts to stand and talk about their society.””
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