VIEW: Why is Veena Malik important? —Zaair Hussain - Friday, February 04, 2011

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Shame, and the presumption of moral inferiority, has always been the most terrible weapon in the discourse of extreme-rightists. They have cunningly and painstakingly embedded it where it will always be close to hand: in the hearts of their victims

There is no occasion where the phrase “a star is born” would be so tempting and yet so inappropriate. Veena Malik was a star, but by virtue of one powerful defence of nothing but herself, on live television, has been reborn as something rather more. Stars, though they twinkle prettily and obsess our attention, ultimately have no bearing upon us.

I know well that the cycle of editorials has already left deep grooves upon the now famous interview, and I chose to add my words in part to give it buoyancy. It is not an insignificant phenomenon.

The interview was poor and the journalist disgraceful, but in a nascent media industry, this is nothing extraordinary. It was more than that. The anchor’s pretensions of neutrality were no more than a fig leaf, and did little to cover his naked bias and hunger for a spectacle. It was a vicious trap, a set up for a public ‘moral’ flogging. And it failed. Veena Malik was thrown into the arena for entertainment and turned out, against all expectations, a gladiator.

But her fighting spirit was not the sole reason people have empathised with her stand. What she said resonated, and held a mirror up to some of the daily ugliness of society we have come, through familiarity, to overlook.

She exposed the mufti for what he and many like him are: paper tigers who roar well enough but have no substance, whose strength lies in the force of their voice rather than in the force of their words.

The mufti had assumed the too-common sanctimonious bearing of a man judging from on high, lavishing his condescension and censure while claiming to represent, in his person, the full and unanimous opinion of the Muslim Ummah. Malik’s response was searing and pure as fire: a moment of bravery, certainly, but also of complete moral poise. She eschewed neither cardinal nor country; she professed herself a true Muslim and a true Pakistani, not apologetically, not fearfully, but proudly, angry that anyone dare cast aspersion on the claim, least of all the men before her.

Over the course of the interview, the mufti looked increasingly impotent and foolish, and could, sputtering, counter her arguments only by asking whether she would be comfortable watching her videos from Bigg Boss with her son or father.

It was not, from a cynical point of view, a bad plan. Shame, and the presumption of moral inferiority, has always been the most terrible weapon in the discourse of extreme-rightists. They have cunningly and painstakingly embedded it where it will always be close to hand: in the hearts of their victims.

Quite incredibly, it did not work. Malik demanded to know why they had found, in a time of suicide bombings and murders in the name of Islam, only herself to chastise. Because she was a woman? Because she was a soft target? (Yes, and yes.) She then went on to say something neither our anchors nor our self-appointed moral watchdogs are accustomed to hearing: “If you sit in judgement of me, then you must suffer me to sit in judgement of you!”


How many of us have, at one time or another, been bursting to say the same? In striking back at a bankrupt hypocrisy, she gave Pakistanis across the country a sweet catharsis against an orthodoxy that so often convinces us that it is a sickness to disagree with them.

Malik also exposed a frighteningly commonplace chauvinism, both social and national in nature. She was right to indicate that she — and perhaps women generally — are made ‘sisters’ of convenience, not to be protected, but lectured. Not to be guided, but controlled.

Where is the moral panic when high profile Pakistani men, cricketers, actors and singers, cross the border for work, play and romance? Ah, but there we are in the man’s role, and the whole nation struts vicariously, particularly at the ‘conquest’ of an Indian girl by one of ‘our lads’.

Do we think of women as flags, to be kept pure and to flutter prettily, affixed immutably to their spot, to their place? Do we care if they are despoiled, not because we care about the flag per se (which is only an object) but because it represents a notion of honour? For a flag to be stolen by a rival is an act of war. For us to take one from the other side is a point of pride. But to walk into ‘enemy’ territory on its own? How bewildering that must be. How can an object commit treason?

Veena Malik refused to be anyone’s flag. This is what so upset the mufti, and many others. It is an unworthy sentiment, particularly as our anti-Indian sentiment seems almost whimsical in these days of horrifying intolerance and the applauded violence of Muslims against Muslims who, some felt, were not quite Muslim enough. No matter how terrible the threat from within, we look to India with almost a perverse fondness as ‘the’ enemy, the one that was good enough for our grandfathers to hate and is, by golly, good enough for us.

We do not have to agree with everything Veena Malik does, or subscribe to her manner of dress or her definition of Muslimness or Pakistaniness. Indeed, that would defeat the point: she did not mount her spirited defence to convert people to her own philosophy. What she stood up for was far more profound: the right to have a personal philosophy, the right to an opinion on religious and patriotic virtues, the right to live and let live, and the right to be filled with righteous and indignant fury if others, private citizens with no authority save for what they bully from us, presume to steal those prerogatives.

Malik attracted her expected share of denigrators, but they are far from a unanimous chorus. Many Pakistanis have raised their voices in praise of her courage, her views, her passion — and in supporting her, they reject by definition the poisonous, agree-or-die orthodoxy that has gripped the nation in madness.

Malik is important not for her own stand, which is certainly commendable, but for the chord she struck and the support that has sprung up around her. It is a flicker of hope, and it shines bright enough in the dark.

The writer is a Lahore-based freelance columnist. He can be reached at

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