In this month’s issue of FHM India, a racy men’s magazine, a saucy Pakistani actress, Veena Malik, rocked the Indian subcontinent with a topless cover photo, wearing only an ammo belt, a crossed arm over her cleavage, a grenade in her teeth, and a bold tattoo on her left bicep, “ISI,” for Pakistani’s nefarious intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.
The cover has been explosive. But while the West has viewed the furor with mild confusion or amusement, many Pakistanis have taken a much more serious stance—with some calling on the actress to be thrown in jail, or worse. The blogs and listservs have lit up with angry, vituperative comments and threats. Notions of shame and honor come up time and again.
“Sharm karo veena,” one person wrote on a fan site for the actress (“Be ashamed, Veena,” in Urdu).
“Shame unto you VEENA. A disgrace to pakistan and islam,” another person wrote on the BBC’s Facebook page.
“Don’t try 2 go back to Pakistan,” someone warned on another fan site, calling her “kutia,” the Urdu word for “bitch.”
In Pakistan over the last year or so, a brigade of pundits, opinion shapers, former military officers, and other talking heads has emerged, taking to the airwaves and the blogosphere to defend Pakistan’s honor, or ghairat. While they slam Malik’s sexy photo shoot, calling on her citizenship to be revoked, they praise people such as the would-be Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, describing him as a victim of a CIA-FBI conspiracy. They find his actions honorable.
The brigade also admires individuals such as Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani MIT graduate known as “Lady al Qaeda.” She was convicted last year in a U.S. court for attempting to shoot a U.S. soldier. The government of Pakistan paid for her defense, and there is a “Free Aafia” movement in Pakistan that regularly takes to the streets.
The topless photo of Malik might just seem like another titillating stunt, pun intended. But she used the pages of the magazine to do something important—to call on Pakistanis to hold themselves and their government accountable for the extremism that has become a part of the nation’s fabric. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Malik said she doesn't expect to reach a lot of people resistant to reform. “I don’t know if they are ready to change. I don’t think they are ready to listen.”
The actress has come to underscore a deep battle that is playing out in Pakistani and Muslim communities.
On one end of the continuum is Malik, a bright, outspoken commentator on her country’s ills, brazenly critiquing corruption, nepotism, and militant extremism in Pakistan. Born in the winter of 1984, as the nascent nation of Pakistan was in the first years of an Islamist revolution led by its military dictator, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, she is the daughter of a homemaker and a father who served in the Pakistan Army and she has called her "ideal." She is college graduate in psychology, sociology, and Persian. On her website, she declares her love for her four dogs, Timmy, Tommy, Katie, and Cutie.
On the other end of the continuum is the Times Square bomber Shahzad, who is just about five years older than Malik, born in Pakistan in 1979. His mug earns one newspaper headline “Made in Pakistan,” putting forth the image of Muslims and Pakistanis as scary extremists.
The ghairat, or honor, brigade, first set its sights on Malik last year, blasting her participation in an Indian reality show, Bigg Boss, as too racy. Malik catapulted to the world stage with a fiery response, defending herself in a TV debate with a mufti, a religious leader, named Mufti Abdul Qavi. The video went viral, rapidly making its way around the world.
In the interview, which first aired on Pakistan’s Express News channel, Malik shouts at the mufti: “If you want to do something for the glory of Islam, you have plenty of opportunities. What are the politicians doing? Bribery, robbery, theft, and killing in the name of Islam. There are many things to talk about. Why Veena Malik? Because Veena Malik is a woman? Because Veena Malik is a soft target for you?”
She even takes on the taboo topic of sexual abuse in the clergy, saying: “There are many other things for you to deal with. There are Islamic clerics who rape the children they teach in their mosques, and so much more.”
While Pakistan was inflamed, Western bloggers lauded her for her “smackdown of a mullah.”
“As a man, as a soldier, I hope to be as courageous as you,” said “Sebastian McClendon.”
“You are great Veena!” wrote “Corbin Bennett.”
“Veena, you rawk!!!” exclaimed “Jack Y.”
Malik comes across as a mix between America’s busty, entrepreneurial starlet Kim Kardashian and its snarky comedian-actress Tina Fey. But there is another celebrity whose chutzpah she captures. “She is sort of the Lady Gaga of Pakistan,” says Nancy Snow, a professor of propaganda and cross-cultural communications at the University of California at Fullerton. “It’s all about the spectacle. You have to be outrageous in order to be heard.”
With Malik “her power is in the physical,” adds Snow. “The image that so many people have of Muslims and Islam is so monochrome: it’s the most conservative, the most fundamental. Here is a very modern woman from Pakistan, where we have an image of society going backward. Here is a woman who is very forward-looking. She is interested in where she is going five years from now. She is interested in where Pakistan is going to be five years from now. She wants to bring Pakistan into the 21st century. That doesn’t mean that she is thumbing her nose at the traditional society. But she is saying, ‘Make room for me.’”
It’s a battle American woman have certainly waged. When Marilyn Monroe had her first sex-kitten photos published in the 1950s, she promoted a new image for women in bed that suggested that women could actually enjoy sex. Later in the 1960s, when Gloria Steinem was told she didn’t look like a feminist, she countered: “This is what a feminist looks like.”
The dilemma with Malik is that, while she is in the photos, she doesn’t fully claim them. She has filed a lawsuit against the magazine, FHM, claiming the images were doctored to make her look fully nude, and to add the tattoo. She says she only went topless, and even then covered herself up with her arms. FHM denies the charges.
Kabeer Sharma, 28, the editor brought in last year to turn FHM around, says, “You have to herald her as a very reluctant, contradictory, media-hungry feminist …an accidental feminist.” He adds, “We’re not a magazine that’s in the business of rocket science. We’re not curing cancer. But people don’t live under a stone.”
Despite the lawsuit, Sharma is satisfied with the response to the cover. “I think we’ve accidentally rocked the world,” he says.
Malik does have some brave Pakistani defenders. In Lahore, Pakistan, where Malik launched her career in the country's film industry, dubbed "Lollywood" for its base in Lahore, her publicist, Sohail Rashid, says he considers her "beauty with boldness." One young columnist, Yasser Latif Hamdani, took her side her earlier this year, saying, “Of course, the same guardians of Pakistan’s image are not bothered in the slightest by bloodshed and murder in broad daylight. Some of them, including leading columnists and writers in the national press, actually support murder and bloodshed. To our ghairat brigade, it does not matter that the world thinks of Pakistan as a terrorist haven.”
Another Pakistani writer, Sana Saleem, slammed the attacks on Malik as “slut-shaming.” In recent months, teaching U.S. military and law enforcement classes about cultural issues in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I've used Malik's debate with the mullah to show how some people are employing a thought-provoking strategy of defying conventional ideas of honor and embracing the notion of being "without honor," or beygairat, to challenge societal notions of what is honorable and what isn't.
Indeed, others of Malik’s generation are pushing boundaries as well: a hip, young Pakistani band called Beygairat Brigade, or “brigade without honor,” put out a music video, “Eggs and Potatoes,” this fall, mocking political and military leaders.
Malik’s defenders reveal a constituency tired of the tactics of societal intimidation—honor and shame. In a Guardian piece headlined “The fuss over Veena Malik’s ‘nude’ FHM cover is Pakistan’s real shame,” Pakistani-British writer Nosheen Iqbal writes, “A flash of skin is causing more frenzied controversy than jihadists posting beheading videos online.”
Malik is certainly a young woman who knows the expectations of her traditional society. As a 19-year-old, she welcomed Pakistan’s Geo TV channel into her house for a segment, “One Day with Geo,” drinking her morning juice in pink pajamas and then modestly wrapping her head with a dupatta, or scarf, for footage of her in prayer. The theme of hadd, or boundaries, was a part of her narrative. “There are limits,” she said at the time. “We are Muslim.”
In the segment, she opened up her curio cabinet to rows of her favorite books, including one by 20th-century Pakistani political satirist Saadat Hasan Manto. Then she put on a white bodysuit and did yoga.
Today her father has disowned her in Pakistan. Malik, for her part, is shooting a new Bollywood film.