(This article was first published in The Review of the newspaper Pakistan Today. An online alternative version can be found here)
Veena Malik’s nude photo shoot for Indian edition of FHM men’s magazine has raised quite a hue and cry in her homeland ,Pakistan, – incidentally, a country ranking third on the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s most dangerous countries for women to live in.Malik denies posing nude for the magazine and has sued FHM which insists the photgraphs are real and has in retaliation sued her with a hefty amount of 250 Million Indian Rupees. In another part of the world, Alya Almahdy, an Egyptian blogger in the midst of the ongoing revolution posts photographs of herself online, clad in nothing but boots. Even the Egyptian Left is quick to wash their hands off her for fear of falling out of favor in the first democratic elections after a four decade dictatorship.
Though the contexts are wholly separate,Malik and Almahdy bring to the fore the issue of nudity, a serious taboo for majority of the world, especially in third world Islamic countries such as Pakistan or Egypt.
It is not the first time that conservatives have whipped themselves into frenzy over the issue of nudity. Take the case of American Robert Mapplethorpe’s nude art which still remains a controversial topic to date. While the supporters of the exhibition entitled Robert Mapplethorpe : The Perfect Moment saw the homoerotic and sado-masochistic nude photographs as a sign of artistic excellence, the opposition saw it as a blatant and obscene display of immorality.
For Almahdy her nude photographs were a means to struggle against a misogynistic society. For Mapplethorpe, it was the aesthetic beauty of the nude human form which inspired his art. And for Malik, and FHM, it was an easy road to big bucks,
But what is so inherently wrong with nudity that it should cause such blanket denunciation? After all, if everyone’s consent is involved and the photos are not shoved in to the faces if tge Puritan-minded, what’s the big problem? The sanctimonious outcry about how it is against the honor of women and is an immoral act is precisely what Alya Almhady is fighting against – the notion of shame/honor that our society so cherishes which has long denied women sexual autonomy , turning them into caged virgins. Ironically, this line of argument is not only used by conservatives and the right wingers, but also certain factions of feminists who believe that nudity results in the objectification of the female body.
The argument goes thus: women flaunting their bodies and sexuality leads to vulgar and cheap objectification of women. Firstly, does this mean I, a man, have the permission to pose nude for Playgirl magazine’s next cover? Why was there no brouhaha over tge nude shots of Antonio Banderas for Playgirl magazine? What about the nude photos of male subjects? Or the alpha male projection of male heroes in Hollywood? Does that not objectify men in a certain manner? How many of us are Hugh Jackman?
The word ‘vulgar’ has an overtly value judgment attached to it and morality, as long as it does not harm someone, is subjective. If you deem Veena Malik’s bare shoot immoral and unacceptable, don’t buy the magazine or look it up on a website.
Then there are some feminists who argue that nudity leads to the commodification of the female body for the capitalistic ends.On the flipside, there are those who believe that burqa is a form of objectification. What am I getting at? The argument of objectification can very well be used afaubsr the guardians of tradition and female honor themselves, keeping in mind how socially constructed sense of propriety, femininity and honor is forced on women to suppress their natural sexuality.
Then there is the other equally significant argument that people like Malik and Almahdy do not represent Pakistan and Egypt. For the starters, they are not Cultural Ministers of their countries. Yes, to a certain extent they do have certain obligations under the silent contract with the society. But does that mean they have to compromise on their art or intellect?
Who represents Pakistan? That is the question troubling the country, with or without Veena Malik. But the fact is Malik is very much a product of this society and so another representative of it. She maybe a reaction to Pakistan and its conservative values as am I, someone who has been tagged ‘Liberal Fascist’ for merely challenging orthodoxy, sexism and homophobia. In all honesty, a nation known for being a safe haven for terrorists all over the world ,and with Munawar Hasan, Zaid Hamid and Ibtisam ilahi Zhaeer purporting to represent our society, Pakistan has little to fret over as to how Malik’s nude, real or morphed, photos are a concern for national pride and proper representation of Pakistan. As Nosheen Iqbal’s Guardian article put it : “The fuss over Veena Malik’s ‘nude’ FHM over is Pakistan’s real shame”. She goes on in the article to point out quite rightly , “A flash of skin causing more frenzied controversy than jihadists posting beheading videos online.That, by a long measure, has to be the real national shame”.