At the end of 2010, Veena Malik was a young Pakistani actress from Lahore with a successful run in the 12-week Bigg Boss (equivalent of Big Brother) house in Mumbai behind her and a couple of Bollywood film offers on the table. Instead of taking them up, she went back to Pakistan.
Then in January the world turned upside down. Salman Taseer, the popular liberal secular governor of Punjab was assassinated by extremists. And Veena Malik found herself, not for the first time, in a media filmi storm. This time it was the fatwa-wielding mullahs, asking questions about her behaviour in Bigg Boss and accusing her of not being a proper Muslim. Coming straight after Taseer’s death, it was more muscle flexing by the politically orchestrated extremists and with the menace of Pakistan’s unrepealed blasphemy laws behind it.
Like Taseer she refused to be cowed and stood up to them. The result on Express TV and a hit on YouTube with a cumulative 300,000 views is unforgettable. She lambasts mufti Abdul Qawi for his criticism, she forcefully lays into the mullahs for their sexual abuse of boys in the madrassas, she protests (rightly) that her behaviour has been impeccable.
The media were temporarily stunned. The grinding plates of political commentary and the opaque deep state had run up against someone who came from the frivolous culture of film and entertainment and they simply didn’t know what to do. Then slowly she was embraced into the broadsheet debate: magazines and serious newspapers such as the Friday Times sought interviews, and more significantly offered support and approval.
It may take a little longer for the country’s middle class to fully understand that what she did was feisty and brave and protective of them. In the fear engendered to liberal Pakistan by Taseer’s death, friends she says have made themselves scarce. Surrounded by her family she thought it prudent to have private security. But there’s nothing wobbly about her at all. Did they but know it, a combination of fury and innate courage has done more to help Pakistan’s mainstream than yards of columns and editorials.
There’s a real challenge for Pakistan’s media: in a west facing similar challenges she would have been hailed overnight as a ‘national treasure’ by the tabloid and broadsheet press – she also has a good record, in a Mia Farrow way, of working with the World Health Organisation. But crossing the boundaries into popular culture to find heros and heroines in Pakistan is novel in Pakistan.
It’s a process that needs to be speeded up. The struggle to keep Pakistan attached to its non-extremist roots depends upon bringing all kinds of personalities into the media spotlight and the ones that can reach popular culture are the most effective of all. So far the broadcast media has shunned the characters who would have made it instantly into the western media: courageous heads of villages who pulled their communities together after the floods; doctors who help the poor free of charge; bio-science graduates who are taking solar power into the villages; singers entertainers and actresses who add to the gaiety of culture and sometimes do something extraordinarily heroic. The BBC picked up an interview with villagers of south Punjab who said they wanted neither the “mullahs nor the Chinese”, but national broadcasters are big business in Pakistan and work to the agendas of their paymasters, whether they be political or of the (not always very efficient) secret state.
In the main broadsheet press of Pakistan, there are only rare mentions of Veena Malik by columnists. They are making a mistake. Feisty, young, intelligent and courageous, her qualities are exactly those that in a Facebook age are leading Tunisia and Egypt out of stalemate.