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Opinion

Culture pop

September 24, 2017

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The white dress

Culture Pop

This week, a famous Pakistan man congratulated another famous Pakistani man in full view of the world on Twitter. He called him righteous. And commended him for the glorious achievement of gaining 4,000 votes in his first attempt at a by-election. The other two candidates polled close to 100,000 votes in total.

This week, a famous Pakistani man thought it amusing to call a Pakistani girl activist posing with an Indian female actor a great actor too. He fumed over her recent admission into an Oxbridge college and called her a “Western plant”. Quaid-e-Azam also studied at London’s Lincoln’s Inn. Had he lived then, this famous Pakistani man from today would probably have condemned him for studying abroad too. Nearly 1,500 people ‘liked’ his social media post.

A famous Pakistan woman wore a dress on a warm September night in New York City. At some point, she stepped outside a venue for a smoke with a famous Indian man. Somebody clicked photographs. All hell broke loose.

The first famous man, Hamza Ali Abbasi, is a Pakistani actor with over four million followers on Facebook and close to 700,000 more on Twitter. The famous man he supports is Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, who has a $10 million American bounty on his head and is alleged to be the co-founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Abbasi, while being a national heartthrob, is also as an amateur political commentator on a private TV channel and on social media. His posts are usually vociferously anti-India and will probably help his long-term political ambitions. Yet even for him, the endorsement of the Milli Muslim League (the JuD’s new political avatar) is OTT.

On Facebook, the famous man venting against Malala Yousafzai was model Syed Abbas Jaffrey. You may not instantly recognise the name but a flowing beard and long hair distinguish this in-demand male model from his counterparts. Jaffrey posted a photograph of Priyanka Chopra and Malala Yousafzai meeting in New York captioning it with: “Today Priyanka Chopra met a great actress”.

It’s not something I haven’t seen before. Pakistan’s only living Nobel Laureate is constantly berated on social media. But it is tedious when every second celebrity sees himself as an entitled commentator. These men are icons for young and impressionable fans who applaud and copy them. But, instead of spreading the light, they darken the room. There is hardly a single international achiever from Pakistan that we acknowledge or believe in. If the world respects them, we hate them. A nation who can’t own their own achievers is poor indeed.

Which brings me to the famous Pakistani woman, spotted with the equally famous Indian man Ranbir Kapoor, who overnight seems to have become the celebrity everyone loves to hate. And all because of a summer dress on a warm New York night, a cigarette and a man who is from the wrong side of the border. And yes, nearly everyone has assumed that where there is smoke, there must be fire.

Mahira Khan has been Pakistan’s sweetheart since she stepped into the limelight as a VJ. But it was really Humsafar that catapulted her into the public eye. She has been every director’s first choice – and has upcoming films with Shoaib Mansoor (Verna), Bilal Lashari (Maula Jutt 2) or Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi (Saat Din Mohabbat In). Yet, in some ways, Khan’s sweetheart image has been both her greatest strength and her biggest downfall. Being Pakistan’s most celebrated heroine means she has invariably been called upon to play variations of herself in most roles. The lines between her real life persona and her on-screen one are often blurred.

The Pakistani public is cruel. We are quicker at detraction than praise. While Mahira Khan got a whole lot of love from Pakistan throughout her career, in the last few days the hate and vitriol been heaped on her has been in equal proportion. So let’s address the issue. Is this about the little white dress? Partially, but hardly. Dresses are worn on the Pakistani red carpet, at parties throughout Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad and on the catwalk aplenty. With plunging necklines, backless scoops and more. Clearly there seems to be a sense that others can do it but Pakistan’s sweetheart can’t.

Is this about the cigarette? Partially, but not fully. You can see women smoking in any restaurant or cafe you walk into in urban Pakistan. Though Pakistanis like to paint women who smoke as immoral or “Westernised” in actuality narghilea or traditional hookah smoking by women is prevalent in many Muslim countries, including rural Pakistan. My maternal grandmother smoked all her life. I don’t remember anyone telling her it was too Western. But once again, it is Mahira Khan being bound by her own celebrity image – nice girls don’t.

But like it or not, what this is really about is Ranbir Kapoor, India and Pakistan and about our girl and their boy. Nira Yuval-Davis argues that women are constructed as carriers of tradition, nation and national honour. So when they fraternise with the male “enemy”, we feel like the subaltern nation.

If Hamza Ali Abbasi had been photographed in shorts with Priyanka Chopra, we would have celebrated the event with streamers and a military band. People (at least those with access to social media) may not be happy with Mahira Khan smoking or wearing a short dress – they are rather more unhappy because she is doing both of these in the company of an Indian man.

So while the response to Hamza Ali Abbasi was divided and to Syed Abbas Jaffrey supportive, the overwhelming reaction to Mahira Khan’s smoke-up has been dark and disgusting. From accusations of supposed hickeys (apparently scars from a cyst removal) to lurid descriptions of imagined sexual encounters with Ranbir Kapoor to religious denouncements, a few pictures of a girl in a white cotton dress have sent the morality brigade into a fury.

Every man has an opinion – be it accusations of perceived betrayal or sexually disparaging references. The heights of condemnation and the lows of language are both startling and far too vulgar to repeat. A shooting star has become a falling star.

This unbridled moral outrage has happened before to female celebrities in Pakistan (think Neelam Muneer) and will happen again. But we should all vocally deplore it.

Is this the end of Mahira Khan’s career? I hope not and think not. She may lose some endorsement deals and advertisers may not flock to her for a bit. But she should take this opportunity to redefine herself as an artist. So for once, I hope Mahira Khan will not blame herself or second guess herself. It’s not her fault that she lives in a country where male stars can support a terrorist and get away with it but a girl can’t smoke a cigarette without being savagely reviled.

The writer is a journalist based in London and works with the BBC World Service as a broadcaster. Twitter: @fifiharoon

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