While the state-run Pakistan Television channel (PTV) maintains its reputation as the government channel, a growing number of private channels have a tendency to sensationalize news with their shiny news desks, attractive anchorpersons and modern shows, something I have seen in channels across state lines in India. The “masala angles” (news with dramatizations of a specific event, particularly involving scandals with the rich and famous) work just as well in Pakistan, turning news or talk shows into pseudo reality TV programs.
The appearance of Pakistani actress and comedian Veena Malik on “Frontline” with host Kamran Shahid was every producers’ dream, with all the trimmings of tabloid TV disguised as hard-hitting journalism. Malik appeared on the show to defend herself from controversy stemming from the actress’s decision to join the cast of Big Boss 4 in India – a reality TV show hosted by Bollywood star Salman Khan. The litany of alleged indecencies she committed include canoodling with a fellow male participant, wearing revealing clothing, and conducting herself in a way unbecoming of a Muslim woman. Also present on the show was a local cleric who accused Malik of disgracing both herself and Pakistan.
It was obvious from the beginning that the interview was meant to humiliate. The anchorman seemed to forget his role as a neutral host to join forces with the cleric, whose persistent rejoinder to Malik was to ask whether she would be comfortable watching her appearance on Big Boss with a son (and or a male relative). Wearing a slightly off-the-shoulder black dress, with coiffed hair and looking every inch the star, she forcefully insisted, “What I do is between me and God.” She instead took the cleric to task on alleged cases of child abuse at seminaries in Pakistan and questioned the utility of targeting her (because she was a woman and therefore “a soft target”) when there were bigger fish to fry. At one point, she burst into tears, asking rhetorically why no one came to her defense when fellow participants on Big Boss 4 mistreated her. “Where was my media then?” she asked.
On the whole, Malik defended herself with ferocity unprecedented for a woman in such a public setting. Most people in her place would have absconded or gone into hiding. Although fearful of her safety, she said in a post interview, “The youth is my hope and I trust young people to change people’s perceptions about Pakistan.”
Malik openly calls herself an entertainer. As an actress, she has starred in several movies in Lollywood – Pakistan’s version of Bollywood – and came to prime time prominence with her comedic chops on “Hum Sub Ummeed Say Hain” (loosely translated to “We are all expecting” a jibe at the rampant corruption in the country) a political satire show that in its zenith poked fun regularly at the political giants taking centre stage then – from General Musharaff, Nawaz Sharif to Imran Khan. Malik served both as the host and performed skits of a number of famous and not-so-famous personalities. Her parodies of fellow Pakistani actresses are legendary. She is also no stranger to controversy, having an alleged affair with Pakistani cricketer Mohammed Asif leading to much public speculation countrywide.
Most of the initial backlash (in relation to Big Boss) occurred before the “Frontline” interview – a recent episode of “50 Minutes” on GEO TV is another example of a lynch mob disguised as a town hall style debate where everyone appeared to agree that Malik had indeed shamed Pakistan and Islam. Although many have openly voiced their support since, Malik claims her friends have deserted her. The furor surrounding her appearance on “Frontline” has resulted in countless news items, blog postings and forum debates in Pakistan and elsewhere. The interview also landed her one of the top ten Twitter trends worldwide on the day the interview aired.
While much of media coverage has garnered positive feedback, some suggest Malik may be overexposed and she does not necessarily exemplify the ideal, modern Pakistani woman. Additionally, Malik’s presence on Big Boss 4 seemed to overlook the presence of Pakistan’s prominent transgender Ali Saleem, who too was a cast mate on the show, as was Pamela Anderson. While many are bound to criticize Malik’s supporters as being part of Pakistan’s liberal elite, no one can deny Malik’s public defense of her person as anything but empowering and courageous; a sentiment women from all walks of life in Pakistan can subscribe to and identify with.
The very public outcry over Malik’s alleged behavior underscores the fact that sexuality continues to be criminalized in Pakistan, where it is a women’s sin to bear and a man’s job to uphold and protect. A family’s honor hinges on the behavior of its womenfolk – a cultural fallacy that continues to force women to remain subdued and assume a false sense of virtuosity with respect to their social interactions, particularly with men. Despite the fickleness of the industry to which Malik belongs, one must not forget women like Mukhtaran Mai who have faced far worse challenges and succeeded in overcoming them and have contributing to the rehabilitation of other women and children in similar predicaments.
People may not subscribe to the choices she has made but Malik’s decisions were ultimately her own, as were the consequences. The uproar will die soon enough, and Malik will benefit from the associated controversy. It is liable the media will eventually erect another champion (or naysayer) of women’s rights in Pakistan; whoever it will be depends on the kind of ratings s/he can bring.