Screenshot – Lolita in South Punjab

February 27, 2022

Amir Liaquat’s recent marriage to an 18 year old has made headlines across all media for all the wrong reasons

Screenshot – Lolita in South Punjab

Sultan Muhammad Golden, not so named at birth, but perhaps after his beard which has been, at various points over his career, all the shades of autumn, made headlines in 1987 for breaking the world record for motorcycle jumping over 22 cars. In 2020, he was in the news again – for marrying a 12-year-old. Even after a medical board found that the girl was indeed 12 and an investigation revealed that her father had falsified her birth certificate, Golden insisted that his wife was actually 19. This story prefigured the newest nuptials of Aamir Liaquat, which have quickly become a cultural flashpoint.

In the first television appearance of the couple, on Channel 92’s Subah Saverey Pakistan, Liaquat quipped that the internet was reacting to his marriage as if it were the wildfires in Australia. To a man who has built a brand out of straddling the line between didactic religiosity and unrestrained hedonism, the uproar surrounding the announcement of his third marriage, timed as it was for just a day after the second wife announced their separation, can hardly be shocking. The appearance was on a morning show, one amongst far too many that follow the same outdated format and are facing an ever-declining viewership. For any morning show, Aamir Liaquat in the middle of a scandal is a godsend. The hosts, Maya and Shahzaib, treated him with the same unrelenting adulation and velvet gloves that Fox and Friends treated Donald Trump with when he was president. Like Trump, he is a political creation of the corporate media, and, just like Trump, he has learned how to play the media establishment like a fiddle.

Shahzaib prompted Liaquat to comment that he reminded him of a different Shahzaib whom he doesn’t like very much, which is perhaps a reference to a time when he would go on regular tirades against Geo admin and some of its anchors. Maya, unlike his docile wife, engaged in a witty back and forth with him throughout the interview, although she too was there to stroke his ego throughout the interview.

Maya, who wryly mentioned that Aamir Liaquat gets the ratings, seems self-aware enough to break from the facade in subtle ways. She played a word association game naming some of the PTI’s most notable opponents. When she mentioned Maryam Nawaz, Liaquat said that she should start going by Maryam Safdar (her husband’s last name) because “buri baat hai”.

His own 18-year-old bride, when asked about her career aspirations, replied that in the community that she comes from, “women are not allowed to work”. When asked what he likes about his new wife, whom he says he first met on the day of the wedding, he said that she was a “shohar parast khatoon.” Maya unsteadily referenced the fact that people were concerned about how young Dania was, especially given the way the last 18-year-old Liaquat married was discarded. Her guest, predictably, sought cover in ‘sunnah’.

To a man who has built a brand out of straddling the line between didactic religiosity and unrestrained hedonism, the uproar surrounding the announcement of his third marriage, timed as it was for just a day after the second wife announced their separation, can hardly be shocking

Liaquat didn’t address the divorce on the morning show, but he has spurned the criticism of his adult children by saying that Islam teaches us to not even say “uff” to our parents. He said that to avoid the drama at the end of his last marriage, he had preemptively sought (and received) the permission of his third wife to marry a fourth one when she inevitably outgrows him. When Maya diplomatically prodded that this felt unfair, Dania replied that if she kept her husband happy, he would stay with her – the onus of the success of a marriage with a man three times her age, in which she has no agency and no financial independence lying squarely on her shoulders.

Amidst the furore on social media regarding this marriage, there are some narratives that frame Liaquat as the victim, falling prey to gold-diggers chasing internet fame. Perhaps alluding to this train of thought, Maya pointed out the social differences between them. Liaquat said that the girl’s family were “saadat” and that that meant more to him than all the wealth in the world.

I seem to recall a different controversy Liaquat was involved in. In 2017, after exiting Geo without a great deal of grace, Liaquat went on a televised campaign against Geo management and some of its journalists. This battle soon extended to liberal analysts, artists and anyone whose politics differed from his. He attacked Sheema Kirmani in the most sexist ways and referred to her as a raqqasa (as though keeping a classical art form alive over decades of a storied career were akin to prostitution). He even insulted her in a TV interview.

And then finally he went too far. He took an out of context clip from a live, televised clip of an interfaith dialogue my father did with some of the most notable religious leaders in the country, including Maulana Tahir Ashrafi and Bishop Alexander John Malik, and framed it as blasphemous. He incited his followers to attack my father at his office. The address he gave out, however, housed my mother’s clinic at the time, where she practices psychiatry to this day. She had to suspend her practice for a time to protect her patients.

Despite his penchant for marrying Syed girls to give his exploitation of young women a cover of piety, he had no problem going after my father, who comes from a well-known Syed family. In response to commentators who said that falsely accusing a Syed of blasphemy was itself sinful, he said that the word Syed was just a title that meant ‘sir’ in Arabic and that in Saudi Arabia they don’t have the same obsession with lineage as we in the subcontinent do, which (to give the devil his due) is not entirely untrue. That controversy ended with the PEMRA banning Liaquat from TV, specifically for endangering my father and his family. But, given the ratings cash-cow that he is, this, like all of his departures in disgrace, did not last very long.

Using religion, or at least his particular brand of pop-culture religiosity, as a weapon to silence his critics is not a new tactic for Liaquat. There is a convenience with which he preys on the audience’s faith to excuse his unethical journalistic practices, his personal shortcomings and ideological contradictions. On the same morning show, he boasts about being just as practised at “U-turns” as the leader of his current party.

To want to keep one’s show relevant in a world where the dinosaurs of old media are rapidly going extinct is a worthy goal, if that show’s content is worth keeping on the air amidst all the sound and fury. This morning show, however, is just vapid and sensational, ratings for the purpose of ratings themselves. Both Liaquat and his new wife seemed convinced that the people on the internet who didn’t approve of their marriage were jealous, without realising the irony that the only people who would be jealous were those with similar inclinations.

With Aurat March still facing backlash (despite Noor Mukhadum’s murderer being given the death sentence this week), the #metoo movement failing to gather steam in Pakistan and the hijab ban in Karnataka having an equal and opposite reaction on this side of the border, Aamir Liaquat has at least started a long overdue and much-needed conversation about what the institution of marriage means to us as a society. With more and more women entering the workforce each year, growing inflation making single-paycheck households unsustainable and children being exposed to cultures and ideas from all over the world at an early age, Aamir Liaquat’s marriage cannot be the template for the partnerships of Gen-Zs – his wife’s generation.

The author is a writer and academic based in Lahore.

Screenshot – Lolita in South Punjab