Veena Malik’s Pakistan
FEAR has gripped the mindset of the Pakistani liberal secular class as a consequence of the brutal murder of Salman Taseer. We are told that Jinnah’s Pakistan is now completely dead and the ‘barbarians’ are knocking at our doors. We can be killed anytime, anywhere and by anyone.
With an unequal distribution of economic, political and socio-cultural capital in their favour, the Pakistani liberal secular class’s fear of the ‘barbarians’ goes hand in hand with their fear of the so-called ‘illiterate’ masses. Their ‘death of Jinnah’s Pakistan’ thesis is based on the proposition that due to the failure of corrupt politicians, the religious right is mobilising the ‘illiterate’ masses in order to Talibanise society. In short, the mullah-military alliance has a sister concern: the mullah-‘illiterate masses’ alliance.
For people who believe that both the religious right and liberal secularists do not understand, or represent, the overwhelming majority in this country, how does one respond to the above fear? My obvious response to the ‘fear factor’ theory would have been a sexy neo-Marxist or post-modernist theoretical critique but truth moves in mysterious ways. Enter Veena Malik and her ‘critical theory’ of state and society.
We can be certain that Veena never wanted to follow Marxism and give her desi ‘critical theory’ of society. Like our other artists, she went to India for selfish capitalist and Warholian fame reasons. But the irrational response of some Pakistanis (mostly men) to her entertainment performances in India has forced her into this theoretical endeavour.
In her critical encounters with the mullah, media, and self-righteous men, this middle-class wannabe with broken English has exposed the weakness of the religious right and the decadent and irrational thinking of the Pakistani liberal secularist.
In two interviews aired on local TV, Veena has shown another side of Pakistan with her aggressive feminist individualism, capitalist consumerist modernism and Muslim internationalism. With her post-modernist manifesto of ‘love, peace, harmony and relationship’, she trashed Pakistani men’s desire to control women through their hypocritical attitude, she critiqued the mullah’s desire to control her personal choices and their desire to question her ‘Muslimness’ and questioned the media’s arrogant policy of personality destruction and privacy invasion.
But there was much more. She questioned Pakistanis’ hypocritical anti-Indianism, questioned the notion of Pakistani culture and showed her determination to be a Muslim and an internationalist at the same time.
Veena’s outburst tells us about the Pakistan which exists outside the mosque of the religious right and drawing rooms or NGOs of secularists. It is a Pakistan in which a hybrid contradictory modernity is taking shape, a modernity which does not fit into the ideal of the puritanical religious right nor comes up to the standards of elitism of the secularist.
Common Pakistani men and women are constructing their own path to the modern world in which they are trying to find a balance between their various competing identities of ethnicity, Pakistani nationalism, globalisation, Muslimness, gender, class and personal desires.
What we have as a result is a contradictory and confused identity in which their ethnic consciousness (i.e., being Sindhi etc) goes hand in hand with their ability to compromise with other communities, their desire to be Pakistani goes with not knowing what it means to be a Pakistani and their desire to be a part of this capitalist world, their dislike of Indians and American policy goes hand in hand with their anti-war views.
Their desire for Muslim exclusiveness goes hand in hand with their rejection of the religious right as a ruling class, a male-dominated society goes hand in hand with an emerging feminist identity, their hatred for the rich and powerful goes hand in hand with their ability to forgive if they are treated with some fairness and their desire to achieve recognition through crude consumerism and worldly success goes hand in hand with their need to strive for some larger societal good.
This hybrid contradictory identity path is historically grounded in Jinnah’s Pakistan. As Ayesha Jalal’s study of Jinnah shows, the mobilisation success of the Pakistan Muslim League lay in the fact that Pakistan could mean whatever you wanted it to mean with the minimum agenda that the state was formed to protect Muslim minority interests. In short, neither the religious right nor the Pakistani secularist can claim to represent Jinnah’s Pakistan because the Pakistan which has emerged is neither theocratic nor secular as classically represented by the success of the centrist parties (the PPP, PML) in elections after 1971 and the enactment of a non-theocratic and non-secular constitution of 1973.
The centre-right and centre-left parties and the Constitution of 1973 succeeded because they represent the contradictory agendas of the contradictory forces in state and society. The religious right and the liberal secularist generally fail because they judge the masses and try to impose their ideal ideological agendas on them.
No doubt there is a lot wrong with this hybrid contradictory identity and a lot of violence, hypocrisy, corruption, discrimination towards minorities and confusion emerges from these contradictions. But the glass is also half full. More importantly, identities are not like Lego that can be reconstructed at your own convenience but rather, one has to deal with identities as one finds them.
The religious right is sensible enough not to launch any movement against Veena because they understand that the masses might support them on the blasphemy laws’ issue but will not let the mullah take over their personal and political lives. As for the Pakistani secularist, these presumptive saviours of Jinnah’s Pakistan should now realise that they also need to be saved by the common men and women of Pakistan, not from the barbarians at the doorstep but from their own elitism.
The writer is a Karachi-based lawyer.