Reading Too Much into Veenagate

Veena Malik is a Pakistani actress with a special flair for controversy. She first made major headlines after confronting a Mullah who accused her of inappropriate and vulgar behavior while participating on the Indian reality show ‘Bigg Boss.’ Her confrontation was praised by many, as she took a stand against general double-standards thrown at men and women in Pakistani society as well as staunchly stating that she did not need to be told about her religion.

Veena Malik. Image via Dawn.com.

“I’m a Muslim woman and I know my boundaries.”

She went on to ask why an entertainer was being held accountable for the maintenance of national integrity, whereas politicians and others were let go almost freely from such charges.

Recently, however, Veena Malik was back in the headlines when the cover of the Indian edition of December’s FHM was featured online. The men’s magazine featured a fully nude Malik her hands crossed over her chest, her legs strategically placed and a large ISI tattoo across her upper arm. As immediately as the magazine’s release, Malik immediately claimed that the photo was fake, that it had been “morphed” to make it seem as though she was naked, when in fact she had been dressed.  Claiming deception, Malik filed a defamation suit, for $2 million, against the magazine, which maintained that the cover – along with several other nude shots of the actress – was “un-morphed” and completely done with a more-than-willing Malik. Not only did FHM claim to have video evidence, but it also struck back with a threat of a lawsuit of its own.

The brief but generally uncaring media coverage that followed the release of the image was further bolstered by Malik’s changing account of what she wore during the photo-shoot, going from fully clothed to partially clothed.

At the least from the pelvis down.

Sounds like your usual celebrity gossip dribble, right?

Apparently not so much to folks such as Asra Nomani and Nosheen Iqbal who see the public and media reaction to “Veenagate” as the “real shame of Pakistan.”On December 6th, Nosheen Iqbal rightly notes, in The Guardian’s Comment is Free, that it’s embarrassing to see the Pakistani government get involved in the controversy, pledging an investigation, but she goes onto to say:

“A flash of skin causing more frenzied controversy than jihadists posting beheading videos online. That, by a long measure, has to be the real national shame.”

On December 13th, never missing a moment to sensationalize, Asra Nomani wrote of Malik as “explosive,” with the “brazen and bold” actress on one end of the confrontation and terrorist-sympathizing extremists thirsty for all the wrong priorities as they hunt to preserve the “honor” of Pakistan on the other end of the spectrum.

Nomani’s third piece on Malik appeared [surprisingly] on Foreign Policy’s AFPAK blog, and used the controversy as a means to explore the apparently “recent” emergence of a counter-culture movement in the country, pointing to Malik’s photo as emblematic of it:

“Malik’s photo is a little more subtle, but in its nuance, it’s likely to become an iconic symbol of a moment when one Pakistani decided to, quite literally and shamelessly, strip bare the truth of how institutions in Pakistan, are focused on the wrong priorities. ‘My dear patriots, there are far graver issues than this which need your serious consideration,’ wrote Pakistani economist and writer Raza Habib Raja, after the photo spread earned the rancor of the honor brigade. ‘The biggest issue is perhaps your screwed up mind set which gets riled up on these trivialities while completely ignoring much serious problems like rising extremism, sectarian killings and massive inequality.’”

Iqbal and Nomani’s are just two pieces, amongst several others, which painted Pakistanis as obsessed with Veena Malik during a time when other, more socially and politically fatal, issues are stake. Yet perhaps watching any of Pakistan’s news channels or clicking open any of the websites for the country’s major newspapers would have shown both Nomani and Iqbal that the concerns of Pakistanis  were far from the question of the clothing (or lack thereof) on Malik’s body. In fact, at the same time that Malik’s photo made some headlines, the public was consumed with the “accidental” NATO killing of over two dozen Pakistani soldiers and, more importantly, “Memogate,” which continues to threaten to bring down the civilian government.

Rather than treating Veenagate for what it was, a publicity stunt that FHM itself most likely supported, it has been treated as another instance of women in a Muslim country not being allowed to express themselves as they wish to with their bodies. What Nomani and Iqbal, as well as others who have covered the story, seem to miss is that Pakistani society is as susceptible to celebrity gossip and scandal as any other society. Kim Kardashian’s short-lived foray into a long-term relationship and Pippa Middleton’s latest fashion cloud the covers of magazines at the local supermarket; comment sections everywhere are filled, among other things, with appearances by a self-acclaimed moral police who feel it is necessary for them to lay down the remaining three commandants left at Mount Sinai. Obsession with the female form is a norm than seems to transcend any cultural, religious, ethnic and “civilizational” boundaries or sense of common decency that otherwise seems to get in the way. While there are, without a shadow of a doubt, double standards with men and women in the public sphere and how they interact with their bodies in Muslim societies, such double standards are not geographically stagnant. Instead, such double standards are a common unfortunate occurrence of any country or social group, albeit expressed to various extents in varying ways.

Heralding Malik as “iconic” of a recent counter-cultural movement in Pakistan (another hyperbole painfully propagated by Nomani), or claiming that the discussion over the magazine cover invokes a deep-rooted social shame and ignorance, is reductionist. It reduces Pakistanis into a single group (or, at best, two extremes) whose every engagement in the social and political spheres can only be understood in terms of poor prioritization in a country that’s falling apart. And it paints certain anti-status quo actions are more worthy of praise than others, specifically those actions that offer an extreme image to another extreme image.

Pakistanis didn’t care much for Veena Malik’s nude photo-shoot and neither should you.  As for Pakistan’s so-called “Queen of Controversy”? She’s looking at you, Hollywood.


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