Thursday, 15 December 2011

Veena Malik exposes the age-old Pakistani tension

My Own Point of View by Dr. Amanullah De Sondy

Facebook newsfeed seemed to be on fire when news broke that the Pakistani actress Veena Malik had posed nude for the cover of FHM magazine a few days ago with a tattoo stamped across her arm with the letters ISI (The Inter-Services Intelligence agency in Pakistan has recently come under attack for their alleged links to terrorist networks in the country). Subsequently it emerged that Malik was suing the magazine for depicting a nude image of her. The story has continued to escalate after Veena Malik’s father, a retired soldier, gave a statement to the British Daily Mail newspaper disowning his daughter, "I have severed all ties with her and I don't want her to have any share in whatever meager assets I have until she is cleared of the controversy and pledges not to visit India again".

In an attempt to resolve the tension, Veena Malik gave an interview to the BBC. Dawning a loose head covering to make a passionate claim that FHM readers were being duped into thinking that she posed nude and that she was not willing to sit back and accept this.

This is not the first time Veena Malik has hit the headlines in Pakistan. In October 2010 she entered ‘Bigg Boss’, an Indian reality tv show where contestants live in a house for around three months. Due to her popularity she was a finalist on the show. In the aftermath of her participation in ‘Bigg Boss’ she had a fiery exchange in March 2011 with a Pakistani Mufti who claimed she had been immoral and had brought shame to Pakistan. Her courage was to be commended, as Veena Malik was quick to respond to the Mufti by highlighting the fact that Pakistani women seem to be held accountable for all the ills of society.

Pakistanis seem to be divided along two general lines, those who seek a romantacised view of an ideal Islamic state and those who seek something Islamic but not as rigid that it controls their self expression. And yet bridging the divide seems to be the life and soul of Pakistan and Pakistanis who still cherish the qualities of Islam between modesty and submission. This is nothing new, the founding father of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, wanted to establish a state that was inclusive to all, cutting short his call for a secular state as it was all too clear that Pakistan’s legitimacy was based on its religious claim. Jinnah was known as a pragmatist who worked closely with Sir Muhammad Iqbal (a poet, Islamic philosopher, academic) to find a way forward that would not let Pakistan be stuck emulating a stagnant historical Islamic Shari’a code and society. So even at the outset the founding fathers tried to build build bridges between different ways of living Islam.

The tension continued with the establishment of religious parties, such as Jammat Islami, headed by Mawlana Maududi (b.1903-d.1979) who wrote his infamous Urdu book ‘Purdah’ in which he highlighted his disgust at Pakistani women trying to emulate ‘western’ ways. Maududi’s conservative formula for clear gendered roles (men as breadwinners and women as housekeepers) still loom strong in Pakistani society and anti-western sentiment has fueled those who seek to limit self expression.

Pakistan seems to move two steps forward and three steps back in this quest for balance and on occasions it makes leaps that leave many baffled. Allow me to highlight just a few examples. Benazir Bhutto was the first Muslim woman leader of a Muslim country. An Oxford and Harvard graduate who led a country dominated by men only to be assassinated in 2007. In 2009, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that the transgendered community were entitled to equal benefit and equality in society. Yet Pakistani tv is still awash with heated and damning debates of the controversial Gay pride party held in June of this year at the US Embassy in Islamabad. And then let us not forget that one of the star’s of Pakistani T.V is Ali Saleem aka Begum Nawazish the cross-dressing drag queen who is known for her piercing and highly political interviews.

The tension is also explicit in the music and film industry with a 'push and pull' between those who wish to promote film and the arts and those who believe that they should not be part of their ideal ‘Islamic’ state. So - It is only in recent times that Pakistanis have started to invest properly in their movie industry. This has meant a new wave of more daring, critical and controversial themes in movies. Terrorism, mixed faith marriages, and reform in Islam are just some of the issues people have been making films about in recent years. The puritans of Pakistan have used many sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and passages of the Qur’an to curb music and films, but to no avail. Music and movies have always been a part of Pakistani culture. It is then no surprise that many run a mile from any discussion surrounding Pakistan, ‘South Asia’ is ‘safer’ when one concentrates on India.

I can't help but include a word on Madam Noor Jehan who is understood as one of the most prolific singers in the Indian subcontinent. Born as Allah Wasai in 1926 and died in 2000. Noor Jehan is certainly in the league of courageous Pakistani women such as Veena Malik and Benazir Bhutto yet would always shy away from talking politics in interviews. I guess Noor Jehan’s contribution to freedom of expression was through her selection of controversial poets in her songs. Faiz Ahmad Faiz (b.1911-d.1984) was a renowned Marxist/socialist who wrote the nazm ‘Mujhe se pehli si mohabbat meray mehboob na mang’, ‘don’t ask me for that ignorant past love no more, my beloved’. I think Faiz’s poetry expressed in the magical voice of Madam Noor Jehan sums up the Pakistani tension perfectly. In this love poem one begins to lose sight of everything looking into the eyes and demure of the lover (or possibly the ideal beloved – God). Yet the same gaze turns to a history and reality marred with metaphoric bodies oozing pus and ills of society that pushes one to realise the reality, or the search, of love in a world of deep tension between two extremes. Faiz’s poem ‘Bol’ (speak) continues to inspire Pakistanis to express themselves, from all sections of society.

‘Speak…for your lips are free
Speak…for your tongue is still yours
Your well built body…is but yours
Speak…your life is still yours
Look…in the shop of the blacksmith…
Bright are the flames…
The iron is red…
Appearing to open…
Is the locked mouth…
The depth/spread of those chains are/is widespread
Speak…this little time is indeed much…
Before the death of the body and the tongue…
By speaking is this truth alive…
Speak…say whatever it is you have to say’
Faiz Ahmad Faiz

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