They say there is some truth to every stereotype -- that generalizations passed down as fact have some universal merit. Models and actresses and their intelligence levels. Pakistanis and their religious zealotry. Veena Malik and her supporters would vociferously disagree on all counts.
The Pakistani actress and model has made it beyond mere international headlines, into the realm of viral internet notoriety. As one of the stars of an Indian reality show called Bigg Boss, in which participants are placed in a house and filmed 24-hours-a-day for three months, Malik became the focus of criticism by a religious figure and a well-known journalist in Pakistan recently.
According to journalist Kamran Shahid, and the Muslim cleric he brought onto his television news show, Front Line, Malik had some questions to answer about her representation of Pakistan and Islam following her time on the Indian reality show, which ended with her eviction in December 2010, not long before a winner was announced.
"Sections of Pakistani society allege that you have brought Pakistani culture into disrepute by going to India. The clothing you wore, and the way you behaved, in addition to how you interacted with the people there were not representative of the ideology of Pakistan, its culture, and its people," Shahid asserted in the interview which turned out to be a religious inquisition of a celebrity entertainer, by a journalist who professed to be "neutral on the issue."
Malik responded that the "allegations are baseless" and went on to say that she was invited onto the reality show as a celebrity and representative of the entertainment industry, not as an example of "a working woman in an office." Today, speaking from a film set in India, she told me that she had no idea what was planned for her during the live interview. "I just went to talk about my experience on Bigg Boss -- I didn't know they had set a trap for me like that, it was all very sudden."
"Once I was on the show, I had no choice but to come up with a solid response and raise my voice about this," she recounts. "I didn't want them to say such things about me, so I decided to stand up for myself."
And she did, even after Shahid, an apparent spokesperson for the monolith of Pakistani cultural and religious values, inferred that she was "obscene and vulgar" on the reality show.
"If I had covered my head with a dupatta [traditional scarf], you people would have accused me of being a Sati Savitri [a symbolic figure of an extremely chaste and obedient woman]," Malik responded. To which Shahid replied "no, we would have appreciated that."
Enter the Cleric
But the real games began when Shahid deferred judgment of "the issue" to a cleric who he regularly brings on the show as a moral compass for his guests. The cleric, observing -- more than once -- that "God has blessed [Malik] with beauty and charm" proceeded to speak on behalf of the entire "180 million people [of Pakistan] who believe that what [she] did was wrong." He added: "100% of them think that you have disgraced Pakistan, as well as Islam."
Malik, urged by Shahid to speak from the depths of her conscience, replied, "I have not done anything wrong, I am just an entertainer. If anyone can prove that I violated either Islamic or state law, you can punish me for that."
But when further pressed by the cleric about her moral leanings -- including a most curious view that "no one in Pakistan could look at images of her in the presence of their daughters" -- Malik came full force on her condemner, accusing him of being unchaste, immoral, and improper himself.
"Since you're on the subject of Islam, let me tell you that you are not allowed to set eyes on me in my present condition. All clerics can cast first sight at a woman, but if they look at her a second time, they must be punished. You deserve to be punished."
In her passionate response to the cleric -- who admitted he had never even seen an episode of the reality show which also happened to feature Hollywood star Pamela Anderson -- Malik proceeded to turn the tables on him while raising a number of serious issues that have plagued Pakistani society.
If you want to work for the glory of Islam, there are plenty of opportunities for you. What are politicians doing? Bribery, thievery and killing in the name of Islam. There are so many things to talk about there. Why Veena Malik? Because Veena Malik is a woman? Because Veena Malik is a soft target for you? What has Veena Malik done? Did Veena Malik kiss someone? Did Veena Malik wear shorter clothes than Pakistani actresses have worn in India in the past? There are many other things for you to be attending to. There are Islamic clerics who are raping the very children who they are supposed to be teaching in their mosques and so much more.
Unsurprisingly, her daring response has generated a great deal of attention, some of it negative. When I asked Malik whether her security situation had changed since the interview, she mentioned receiving "a few letters from people who say they are going to kill me" but her natural reaction to such threats is reflective of the persona that was revealed in the interview: pragmatic, honest, and courageous.
"I believe in looking into the eyes of reality rather than away from reality," she told me. "I know my life is in danger in Pakistan, but at the end of the day I have to go back to my country -- that's my country, those are my people, so I have no choice. I am not going to get political asylum in some other country."
While she is aware of the attention the interview has received, she says that was the last thing on her mind as it was happening. "At that time, it was my prestige, my respect, and being a woman and my place in the society" that was foremost.
During the interview, she alluded to the fact that her modern approach to lifestyle and fashion is absolutely not unique in Pakistan, and is in fact widespread. "Tell me what doesn't happen in this society," she said to the cleric. "Go look at clips on the internet, see what's taking place amongst the upper class. The world has become a global village. Do you think we don't know what's going on behind closed doors? Why can't we move beyond these things?"
But when I asked her how she felt about the attention she had received, she answered her own question about why Pakistan is still working on moving past the fact that many Pakistanis are embracing contemporary international habits and values:
Lots of women, lots of young people in Pakistan know the facts, know what is happening in the society but are not so vocal about it. Yes, there are people praising me, who are appreciating me, but I would say that rather than praising me or appreciating me, people have to have the guts to stand and talk about their society.