The XX Factor

How We See Veena Malik in Pakistan

Veena Malik was a veritable nobody before she decided to hop across the border and become a star. Becoming famous in Bollywood is the ultimate dream for Pakistani entertainers, and we have had many actors, pop singers and lyricists cross the border at the slightest hint of interest from India. So when it was announced last fall that Malik, a B-list television actress, was going over to star in the Indian reality show Bigg Boss (a take-off of Big Brother ), it wasn’t considered a big deal-until Pakistanis back home started seeing footage of her wearing mini-dresses and snug-fitting tops, openly hugging her male co-stars, and even occasionally exchanging a kiss on the cheek.

The fireworks really began when Malik and a religious scholar, Mufti Abdul Qavi, were brought head to head on a television show in January to discuss the issue of Malik’s morality (video embedded below). An emotionally charged Malik, dressed once again in a close-fitting outfit, rebuked the scholar: “If you want to do something for the glory of Islam …[focus on] bribery, robbery, theft and the killings of innocent people. Why are you concentrating on Veena Malik? Because Veena Malik is a woman.” (The translations are mine.)

The story of Malik versus the mufti is just catching on in the West, but it has been a hot topic of discussion in the drawing rooms of Pakistan for many weeks. The television clip was widely circulated on the Internet, where most commenters seemed tickled at the idea of a beautiful woman taking a conservative mullah, or religious scholar, to task. On chat forums, many Pakistanis congratulated Malik for her passionate defense, describing her as a “wonderful woman.”

“Wow, what a lady. And yet that psycho cleric is right. the vast majority of muslims will think she is a whore etc,” wrote one reader on a Pakistani news website.

But out on the streets of Lahore, where I live, I met many women and men who were shocked at the thought of a Pakistani woman indulging in what are popularly regarded as indecent acts. “She disrespected our culture,” said Abida Malik, a housewife. “It’s not okay for women to act this way or wear such clothes,” said Tariq Abdullah, a driver. As a general rule, Malik has been applauded by the upper echelon of society-who are more inclined toward the West to begin with-and condemned by the lower and middle classes.

A woman who dressed and behaved in public the way Malik did on Bigg Boss would indeed stand out in typical Pakistan society. Even in relatively liberal cities like Lahore and Karachi, women here wear modest clothes outside the home. The most daring might opt for a sleeveless top or a pair of tight jeans. Public displays of affection between genders are restricted to holding hands or the occasional quick side hug. Anything more results in pointed stares and, usually, loud admonishments. Once, I was reporting on a demonstration in Islamabad wearing jeans and a t-shirt: Three men threw a shawl at me, while another spat in my direction.

And while Pakistani actresses often sing and dance in skimpy clothes, they do so in films, in which they play characters in fictional stories. There’s a level of distance that makes their behavior more acceptable. But Bigg Boss is a reality show, a relatively new genre in Pakistan-so the sight of a real woman dressing and acting as Malik did still seemed shocking to audiences here. Television anchors have advanced into wearing sleeveless tops and knee-length pants, but mini-skirts and sharing tight hugs with a male counterpart would definitely be taking it a step too far.

Before the interview between Malik and Qavi went viral, the mullahs, who are extremely vocal in Pakistan, made it clear over loudspeakers and in sermons delivered before prayers that they weren’t happy with Malik’s behavior. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan sent her a letter, condemning the way she had conducted herself in India. Meanwhile, since most Pakistanis watched Bigg Boss online, the big question the middle class had was: When do mullahs watch YouTube?

“I guess they are more tech-savvy than we thought,” said Uzma Sarfaraz, a housewife in Lahore. “When they aren’t busy admonishing people, they’re surfing the net.”