Who’s afraid of Veena Malik?
News broke of Veena Malik’s “nude” – more accurately, implied nude – photographs in FHM India magazine when the image of the magazine’s cover went viral on Twitter, even before the magazine was on newsstands. The media in India and all over the world reported “outrage” in Pakistan, in keeping with the international image of Pakistan as a country taken over by Islamists who would wreak havoc over a Pakistani woman posing without clothes for an Indian magazine with ISI tattooed on her arm.
FHM India itself magazine emphasised Malik’s nationality, calling her a “Pakistani WMD” and discussing burqas with her, even mentionining the word burqa on the cover, to reinforce the stereotype of a hot Pakistani model defying a country riven with Islamic extremism.
But in reality, there hasn’t been as much backlash in Pakistan as the world outside would expect or believe. Says Islamabad-based journalist Shiraz Hassan, “I am surprised that except a few news channels and papers nobody has been bothering about Veena Malik, as though they don’t care what she did. Haven’t seen anything from hardliners also.”
The notoriously over-active Pakistani judiciary refused to step in, saying that even if a case of obscenity was made out Malik could only be tried in India for what she did in India. Pakistan’s interior affairs minister Rehman Malik, when forced by journalists asking for his response to the controversy, said he would consider legal action only if it was proved the pictures were not morphed. “The media morphs even my pictures,” he said, “putting me sometimes on a bicycle and sometimes on a donkey.”
Veena Malik’s father has said he’s disowning her (just as Rakhi Sawant’s family disowned her some years ago). Veena has said she will explain to her parents that she did not pose nude as has been made out in pictures she says are morphed. She has claimed that she was “topless but not nude” as she was wearing a thong, removed in photo editing, and her breasts were covered with her arms. She has defended the ISI tattoo with the explanation that it was to debunk the the Indian penchant for blaming everything Pakistan on the ISI. FHM India’s editor Kabeer Sharma gave the same explanation on Pakistani TV channels.
Karachi-based Yusra Askari, who reports for NDTV, says perhaps it’s a case of boredom: “Veena Malik’s pictures have not been as controversial as one would have imagined or the international media leads you to believe. The reaction to the way she conducted herself on Big Boss was surely a greater reason of concern among the masses. Probably less shock value the second time around.”
Her canoodling scenes with actor Ashmit Patel in reality TV show Big Boss 4 late last year was seen on TV sets in Pakistan and had ruffled many feathers. This time, Veena defused the situation somewhat by immediately claiming she was suing FHM India for putting out morphed images, claiming she did not pose “nude” at all. Some Pakistanis seem to have believed her version even though the magazine’s editor Kabeer Sharma was on Pakistani channels claiming he had a video of the shoot.
There have been no fatwas, no price on her head, no street protests calling it the ‘dishonouring’ of Pakistan. She has claimed receiving death threats privately, something she did back in March too. She has dismissed allegations that she claims threat to her life for publicity. It has been speculated that the controversy is a set-up precisely to shock and be in the news to help the ratings of her ‘Swayamvar’ show on an Indian channel. She had made it to Big Boss 4 in the first place because she found her way to news and controversy by claiming her former boyfriend, the Pakistani cricketer Mohammed Asif was guilty of match-fixing.
In any case Veena Malik does not have to fear the clerics beyond the TV studios. Muniba Kamal, editor of Instep, a fashion and lifestyle supplement of The News daily, says that the people with guns and bombs, including even the Taliban, eliminate only political targets. “No fashion show has ever been attacked, no actor assassinated. The public mood in Pakistan is not baying for Veena Malik’s blood at all and the media has by and large not inflamed passions,” she said on the phone from Karachi.
It was also the timing that helped, says Karachi-based columnist Ahmed Yusuf: “The issue went somewhat under the radar because of the political scene in Pakistan right now. For the media, much of which is right-wing, kicking Zardari out of power by any means necessary is top priority at the moment, and hence, most talk shows catered to that requirement.” This despite the reported attempt of the Pakistani Army’s Inter Services Public Relations to influence by sending local journalists an SMS that said Veena Malik’s actions were “the height of humiliation for Pakistan, done by a Pakistani on Indian soil”.
Far more than outrage, there has been humour. The most popular joke is that now that Veena Malik has declared her “assets” she could join Imran Khan’s party, which demanded politicians declare their, well, assets. Even the ISI tattoo on her arm elicited jokes; one said that her arm says ISI but the picture is RAW. Saba Imtiaz wanted her for the post of ISI chief – many Pakistanis were happy about the ISI tattoo, taking it to be a statement of ridicule against their unaccountable intelligence agency.
Comparisons were drawn instantly, even by Pakistanis on Twitter, with Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, the 20 year old Egyptian blogger. A few weeks ago, Aliaa had posted on facebook a nude picture of herself, and when Facebook took it down, on Twitter. She and her boyfriend said they were doing this as a statement against conservative sexual mores in Egypt, and in support of free expression. In a CNN interview she explained that she did it to make that point that she is “not shy of being a woman in a society where women are nothing but sex objects harassed on a daily basis by men who know nothing about sex or the importance of a woman.”
Veena Malik did not express any such activist intentions, though she did say she might consider doing a full monty shoot in the future. In typical Veena style, she maintained that she is merely an “entertainer” doing what is considered permissible in India’s entertainment industry. Despite her not taking up the flag of feminism, the comparison with Elmahdy remains because one could argue it does challenge sexual hypocrisy in Pakistan, as also in India. For instance, Miss Pakistan (World) Sonia Ahmed thinks it is to be Pakistan’s Protima Bedi moment.
Novelist Bina Shah tweeted, “We get outraged by Veena Malik’s photograph, but we don’t care when women are paraded naked in the street to avenge “honour”? WTF?” In another tweet, she referred to voices in Pakistan that demanded Veena Malik be stripped of her citizenship: “I know men don’t care about women being stripped and marched naked because they never demand that the perpetrators lose their Pak citizenship.” Such expressions of support for Veena Malikhave
abounded on Twitter and Facebook, which matters even if it reflects the view of only the upper classes of Pakistani society.
If Pakistan has learnt to live with what Veena Malik does, it has a lot to do with what Veena Malik says. When in January she returned to Pakistan after Bigg Boss, she was asked by a Pakistani news channel to be confronted by a cleric, Mufti Abdul Qawi. (Again very Rakhi Sawant-like, who has no qualms taking on Baba Ramdev.) The Mufti said she was bringing a bad name to Pakistan, doing things that were un-Islamic. Malik gave it back to the Mufti so badly the video went viral on YouTube. There are various copies of it on YouTube with lakhs of hits; the most popular one has over ten lakh. Her repeated question, “Mufti saab, yeh kia baat hui?” has become something of a slogan for Pakistani liberals. Even a music-mixed version of the news show it by a DJ has over 1,62,000 hits:
Not only did Veena Malik shut up all of Pakistan’s conservatives with one TV appearance, she also struck a chord with beleagured Pakistani liberals. A Karachi-based lawyer, Faisal Siddiqi, wrote an op-ed in Dawn, titled “Veena Malik’s Pakistan”. He wrote, “Veena’s outburst tells us about the Pakistan which exists outside the mosque of the religious right and drawing rooms or NGOs of secularists. It is a Pakistan in which a hybrid contradictory modernity is taking shape, a modernity which does not fit into the ideal of the puritanical religious right nor comes up to the standards of elitism of the secularist.” He also explained why Pakistan’s religious right wasn’t taking Veena Malik head-on: “The religious right is sensible enough not to launch any movement against Veenabecause they understand that the masses might support them on the blasphemy laws’ issue but will not let the mullah take over their personal and political lives. “
Some have felt sad that Veena Malik has to play the role of a liberal hero, considering what she does is very much in aid of objectification of women. Hafsa Ahmad has written that Veena Malik’s photo-shoot for a men’s magazine is antithetical to feminism. Similar concerns were raised by Pakistani feminists back in January, but after watching Veena Malik demolish the Mufti on TV, one such Pakistani feminist writer, Urooj Zia, argued, “Like the ‘dancing girl of Moen-jo-Daro’, not only are these women comfortable with their own sexuality, they also choose to flaunt it, thus conveying the message that their bodies belong to no one but them; that they are the sole custodians of their morality and sexuality.”
Veena Malik is a hero of sorts, but what about FHM India? Pakistani actor and stand-up comic Osman Khalid Butt posted a hilarious vlog where he came to the conclusion that it is “not Veena Malik but the FHM India that is seriously screwed”.
Osman’s reading of the cover as being full of “weird shit” is borne out by the pages inside. The lad-mag is full of white-skinned semi-naked women, and Veena Malik does little more than play on the Indian stereotypical fantasy for Pakistani women. The cover calls her a “Pakistani WMD” and the intro to the story inside reads, “The bombshell from across the border blows the lid off match-fixing in cricket and sheds her burqa.”
Not only does that indulge in stereotyping Pakistan as a land where all women wear burqa, it is also deeply offensive that women who “shed” the burqa would be thus naked for the male readers of FHM India. The story says on the one hand that she used to wear a burqa in her student years, and then says she still does so “back home”. It is less about her and more about her controversies, which we are told are “more than (those of) Burlesconi”.
Written by editor Kabeer Sharma, it describes at length with innuendo the undressing for the shoot (“Our behaviour is as can be expected when standing before a lady in a state of undress – we smile politely and nod”). There is talk of her relationship with Pakistani cricketer Mohammad Asif, convicted for match-fixing, her “alleged” lack of a work visa in India, and then we return to small talk about Islam, burqas, alcohol and parties in Pakistan. The editor tells us, in what is anything but a profile of Veena Malik, “She could have asked for the keys to our ancestral house at this point, but all she wants is cappuccino.”
Ironically, for all the shedding-the-burqa talk, the magazine has an opinion piece, also by its editor which rubbishes the Egyptian Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, saying, “We’re all for women stripping off for all and sundry causes, but do we really need more amateur porn?” Sharma writes he would give an arm and a leg to visit a bra-bonfire of the ’60s “because it sounds like a fabulously exciting bachelorette party”. It seems Sharma wants women to burn their bras and shed their burqas not because these are symbols of their objectification by men but so that we could get to the whole point of such objectification – sex and only sex sooner. Sharma even acknowledges the problem, as if honesty makes it better: “It’s also not tough to imagine what the criticism to this piece will be. It’ll be made symptomatic of how despite moving into the 21st century or whatever, (!) the Indian man is still regressive and continues to objectify women – it would be true too. But then how is giving us more amateur porn helping the cause?”
But isn’t FHM India‘s cover story doing just that!
There is an alternative cover the magazine has printed inside, one they didn’t use, in which she is wearing a belt full of green-coloured pouches, covering her breasts with her left hand and with the right hand she is holding a hand grenade with its pin between her teeth. Unlike the ISI tattoo, this act doesn’t seem like it was aimed at improving Pakistan’s image before Indians.
The rest of the magazine’s pages are full of semi-naked white-skinned women. When it’s not about women’s bodies, it’s about how to do a sting operation and how to play snooker! Two full pages of Facebook-downloaded funny signboards (“Go Slow: Accident Porn Area”) are not enough; there’s more Facebook-downloaded funny signage in other pages. Another two-page graphic is about buying beer, hurling an expletive and asking a girl out in different countries and languages.
Just who is the target audience of this incredibly daft magazine that gives us so much amateur soft-porn (perhaps their editions in other countries have porn that is less amateur) and self-reflexively wonders if we need more amateurs? Clearly, the target audience is amateurs (perhaps unintentionally). It is not the Indian man but the Indian adolescent male who will buy this magazine, the sort who will need to hide it from his parents and for purposes of the bathroom.
(An edited and shorter version of this article first appeared in FirstPost.com on 14 December 2011 under the title ‘Where’s the fatwa? Veena Malik strips, Pakistan yawns’)