OVER A COFFEE: Memomania to Veenamania: honour is skin deep?—Dr Haider Shah
Some gatekeepers of public morality find the holiness of our spymasters damaged. Laughter is the best medicine. That is why Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi advises us that we should develop the habit of laughing at ourselves. This would lessen the national stress level that keeps surging
Our media has an insatiable
appetite for bringing down the heavens over petty issues. And as addicts would welcome a fresh supply of a new dose, our fun-starved viewers also demand that nonsensical tirades should be unleashed upon them all the time. While the television sets were already ablaze with Memogate discussions, Veena Malik’s images have poured oil over the raging fire.
Hardly had I begun writing these lines when on the TV screen I started seeing images of more than 50 Pakistanis, holed up like chickens, in a seminary with chains on their feet. The images of the battered inmates of the seminary reminded me of Bethlehem asylum (or bedlam), the world’s oldest institution specialising in the mentally ill and now renowned for psychiatric treatment. However, two centuries ago the institution was notorious for atrocious conditions and the patients could be watched by the public as ‘freaks’ for a penny. The visitors were even permitted to poke the caged patients with a long stick. Therefore, what a fashion model does with her body, which is entirely her own property, does little to dishonour me. But the fact that in the 21st century bedlam in much worse condition exists in Pakistan, where children as little as eight can be locked up in chains with adult addicts, strips me of any sense of honour. What honour is left when parents themselves provide chains to the perpetrators of inhuman treatment? What national dignity are we talking about when people, instead of seeking medical attention, send their loved ones to pirs and seminaries for curing their mental or physical ailments?
I would have protested most vehemently if Veena’s pictures were published in my 11-year-old son’s textbook or in one of his storybooks. I would have objected very strongly if I was forced to watch her show on TV at 7pm when my kids are in my company. I would have been furious if I was forced to purchase the magazine containing Veena’s pictures. Whether the pictures were nude, artistic nude or erotic, they were meant for a men’s magazine in India. In this case I can exercise my choice as I deem fit. If I feel the pictures are distasteful or potentially harmful, I can keep myself and my children away from them. How come honour creeps in? Some gatekeepers of public morality find the holiness of our spymasters damaged. Laughter is the best medicine. That is why Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi advises us that we should develop the habit of laughing at ourselves. This would lessen the national stress level that keeps surging. Beauty and danger often go together as metaphors. For instance, in Urdu poetry the metaphors of sword and dagger are used for a beloved’s eyebrows. There is a famous Michael Jackson song ‘Dangerous’. In India, the ISI is a byword of media for danger. Veena in the picture was therefore personifying danger. If we are not duty-bound to see all trivia through the holiness lens, then the act could have been laughed away without causing any uproar.
The extent to which honour is associated with the human body is culture and time-specific. For instance, in a very rigid Muslim orthodoxy even a male should be fully clothed. In the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, football players in shorts were punished for violating religio-cultural norms. Muslims in other countries, including Pakistan, do not have this level of sensitivity. The extent to which an average male in a given society demands a woman to cover up her body can be termed the sensitivity index. This sensitivity towards the female body is different in different cultures. For instance, in the predominantly conservative Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, it is unlikely to see women without a burqa in Pashto-speaking areas. On the sensitivity scale, we can say that men in that cultural setting are extremely sensitive to the whole body of their womenfolk and hence women have to cover themselves up even in humid hot summers. In urban Punjab, the sensitivity is comparatively less stringent so women can move around without covering their faces. In Karachi, the sensitivity scale is even more on the lower side and women wear sensual dresses like saris without risking social disapproval. Even in a country like Britain, sensitivity towards the female body has not always been the same. In Shakespeare’s time, stage plays did not have female actors and female roles were performed by male artists.
Nature has gifted the power of sensuality to females in addition to other faculties. In Engels’ seminal work on the origins of private property and the family, it has been argued that when the institution of private property evolved, strong men captured weaker men and women. The muscular strength of enslaved men and sexuality of females became his personal property. We see that gradually the stronger man’s control over weaker men’s muscular power and women’s sensuality has become less overbearing. People learn to respect the naturally gifted powers of both sexes. It has become acceptable that everyone has a right to swirl the stick as much as he or she likes, provided it does not hit other people’s noses. At the same time, other people also do not poke their noses in the personal matters of other individuals.
To what degree Veena and other showbiz personalities should factor in our cultural sensitivity to the female body is an issue on which we all may have opinions. But the answer should better be left to these individuals as we should not assume the responsibility of imposing our cultural tastes on others. Otherwise, we do not fare much differently from the Taliban who banned wearing of shorts by footballers or punished barbers for shaving beards. Why should we be bothered by a showbiz aspirant who is doing what she thinks is best for her and is on a route that is treaded by thousands of models every year? If we do not feel dishonoured by the violent paths adopted by Faisal Shahzad and Siddiq Hussain and dismiss their activities as their personal acts, why should we think a fashion model represents us and hence should not be left alone. If we are not ready to keep our noses to ourselves then perhaps Veena should have known that in Pakistan not only beauty but honour is also skin deep. And she is entitled to remind us that in order to lose something it is necessary that it should be owned in the first place. After browsing our 64 years of history, can someone tell when was honour actually earned?
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org