Veena Malik and the Realities of Pakistani Womanhood

December 8, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nadia B. Ahmad

Veena Malik

When Zahida Malik was born in Rawalpindi, her parents never imagined their daughter would bare all on the cover of an Indian magazine FHM. But the model and actress now known as Veena Malik has sent shock waves roaring through her homeland. She denies the photos and claims they were morphed and has already filed suit against the magazine stating that she was “materially misrepresented,” “deceived” and “induced to take a photo shoot.”

I had not heard of Veena Malik until last Friday, but understanding her and what she espouses is instructive for a constructive dialogue on the status of women in Pakistan. She is a phenomenon, a trend, a diva, and a role model for an increasing number of young Pakistani girls seeking to defy a male-dominated society. She is seen with contempt and scorn by diasporic Pakistanis because of her raunchy comedy and clueless persona.

Muslim clerics claiming some sort of moral authority have attempted to engage in debates with Veena Malik in the past to clean up her act and much to no avail. Meanwhile, she argues that she is an entertainer and what she does is her art. From the outset, Malik won the debates before anyone opened their mouths because she understood the media. Her tantrums, tears, and sobs were a throw-back to anyone who dared to confront her. Malik turned herself into a victim when all she wanted was a tad bit of attention, fame, and the ability to represent her people. 

Pakistan, like its neighbor India, takes its entertainers too seriously. As if one person can represent the entire country. (As if the one person who did represent the entire country did not recently resign. A throat clearing tribute to Hussain Haqqani who made way for a woman, Sherry Rahman, to replace him as the Pakistani Ambassador to the United States.)

Yet out of the Veena Malik controversy, an alarming issue is how women’s bodies are more and more becoming the platforms for geo-politics in South Asia. The display of excess skin is tasteless, yes, but by drawing attention to something that is reserved for private spaces makes the Pakistani ulema lose credibility.

The more pressing problem is that women in Pakistan have little or no opportunity to attend daily prayers in mosques. While women can roam freely in the markets and use the power of the purse, they are denied access to houses of worship all over Pakistan.  Even though women are not required to attend the Friday prayers and have no responsibilities in Islam outside of the house, the reality is women and girls would go to the mosque given the opportunity.

But by having this culture of shooing away girls from the masjid, deal with the aftermath.  Cope with reality. It bites.


Three Cups of… What?

April 21, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Adil James, TMO

GregMortensonGreg Mortenson is apparently a big liar. The founder of the Central Asia Institute (CAI) and writer of the bestseller Three Cups of Tea, one-time mountaineer and world traveler, is in addition a profligate cheat.  60 Minutes did a story this past Sunday on Mr. Mortenson, exposing some of the more expansive exaggerations of which he is guilty. 

Mortenson is famous for promoting the education of Afghan and Pakistani girls despite the region’s reputation for being absolutely religiously charged against the education of girls.

The 60 Minutes expose showed that, first of all, the underlying story which has become the engine for his not-for-profit, for his books, and for his own captivating attraction to the American public eye—is a lie.  Mortenson claims to have come into a village after being separated from a climbing troupe—a village which nursed him back to life and then accepted his intervention in the form of building a school house for the young girls of the village. 

In fact the village of Khorfe that Mortenson mentions is one that he did not hear about until a year after the climbing trip—a trip from which he was never separated and which passed uneventfully.  “A beautiful story… and a lie,” explained interviewee Jon Krakauer, himself a mountaineer and the author of Into Thin Air (a first-hand account of the 1997 Mount Everest disaster).

The other harrowing story that forms the nucleus of his aura of magical transcendence is that of being captured by Taliban and then released after asking for a copy of Qur`an.  The evidence for this story was Mortenson’s picture among about a dozen bearded Afghan men with Kalashnikov rifles.  The truth of this story, however, is apparently that Mr. Mortenson travelled with some friends who happened to have beards and Kalashnikovs (like the other 95% of men in the region), with whom he stayed by choice and not compulsion.  60 Minutes interviewed one of those men, a prominent Pakistani journalist who explained that in fact the other people in the picture were his relatives and fellow travellers—the journalist said that absolutely those men were not Taliban—and also showed a picture where Mortenson held a Kalashnikov while the bearded men did not.

The 60 Minutes crew traveled to 30 of the schools supposedly built and maintained by Mortenson—half of these schools are now defunct, or were never built, or were built by someone else, or were never supported beyond a rudimentary level by Mortenson, and succeeded on their own and without his support.  The 60 Minutes segment is evidence that Mortenson filed a fraudulent IRS Form 990 for his not-for-profit, which lists these problematic or nonexistent schools as recipients of aid. 

The 60 Minutes expose showed the lavish lifestyle of the author, who travels in private jets to see enthralled and adulating audiences around the United States—where he earns $30,000 per speech.  The expenses for these trips are borne by his not-for-profit.  Yet the speaking fee goes to him, and the profits from the book sales also go to him.  In fact the not-for-profit spent 1.7 million dollars in one year to fund his travel on speaking engagements and book tours, more than it spent that year to build or fund schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Mortenson claims outlandish conversations with an individual, who Mortenson claims promised to send all his yaks with provisions to help build a school—conversations that 60 Minutes interviewees described as completely out of character for that individual.  60 Minutes showed footage of the relevant school, explaining that in fact it is now defunct, a small isolated cement structure on a mountain, devoid of use.  He claims to have built multiple schools (sometimes claiming nine, sometimes eleven) in war-torn areas—interviewees explained he had built three schools there, not more.

CAI has suffered some internal rifts which the 60 Minutes report explained as being caused by Mortenson’s lavish living and abuse of his not-for-profit. 

The report contended that Mortenson used the CAI’s money as a personal ATM.  Financial analysts who analyzed the CAI books contended that there was substantial intermingling of his own funds with not-for-profit funds.  In 2002, the report explained, three of Mortenson’s board members including the treasurer quit in protest over his misuse of funds.

Mortenson does not appear to have good answers to the questions raised by the 60 Minutes story—as evidenced by his running away from 60 Minutes reporters and suddenly cancelling a speaking engagement to avoid their questions.

“This is not Bernie Madoff,” said Krakauer.  “He has done good, girls are being educated,” but Krakauer explains that this good is offset by his fraud and lies.

The disturbing underlying reality of this event is that Westerners will pay to hear certain narratives that give them heart in the ideological battle they wish to wage against Islam, they will pay people to sing the songs that match their dreams–unfortunately for them, it looks like this particular pitchman for this narrative was diluting the tea he sold with something less appetizing.