Traditional Islamic values in Pakistan are under attack by a sassy brunette known as Veena Malik. In her socially conservative country, moralizing against figures like Malik -- an actress, model, and reality TV star -- can seem as routine as the call to prayer. All the more reason, then, for shock when she responded to religious critics by taking on Muslim clerics themselves, some of whom she said "rape the children they teach in their mosques, and do so much more," adding, "Since you have set up a court here, I demand that the court dispense justice."
But this was no courtroom. The venue was a TV studio in Lahore, where a shouting match erupted between the brazen 27-year-old and a respected white-haired cleric named Mufti Abdul Qavi. Moments earlier, Qavi had admonished Malik to examine her conscience for her behavior on a popular Indian reality TV show, telling her she had "disgraced Pakistan, as well as Islam." Qavi later admitted he had never watched Malik's show.
The debate over Malik's moral obligations had millions of Pakistanis glued to their television sets. The sheer audacity of an actress openly challenging a religious figure left many thunderstruck.
Divisive Figure: Veena (real name Zahida) Malik is a tremendously polarizing figure in Pakistan. Her supporters praise her as a trailblazer, a young Muslim who stands for an emerging strain of progressive Islam committed to women’s' rights. Her detractors -- a coalition of conservative religious figures, nationalists, Taliban loyalists, and a 13,000-strong "I hate Veena Malik" Facebook page -- question her moral credentials.
Malik's recent participation in the hit reality show "Big Boss 4," the Indian equivalent of "Big Brother," has been plagued by rumors of illicit behavior. These rumors were used by Qavi to upbraid Malik, leading to a showdown that made television history in Pakistan.
Mariyam Ali, a producer for the Express News television channel that broadcast the debate in late January, says her opinion of the controversial actress changed after seeing Malik confront the cleric. "She's not a hypocrite, at least," she wrote in an e-mail interview, adding that Malik's decision took some serious "guts and courage." Speaking for herself and her circle of friends, however, the 25-year-old said that while they "may not dislike her," they "don't look up to her either!"
'Thinking For Themselves': Malik ranks among a small but diverse group of defiant women in Pakistan. They range from assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to the young and still relatively unknown Shehrbano Taseer, daughter of slain former Governor Salmeer Taseer, a vocal supporter of the rights of religious minorities. Taseer recently came out in support of her father's work, vowing to continue in his footsteps even if it put her in danger.
For her part, Malik says, "you won't believe the kind of huge response I have received from the women of Pakistan, even the women who wear the burqa and all." She quotes messages from girls who say things like, "you have given us hope, to stand up."
She thinks things have "already started" to change in Pakistan. But with Islamabad mired in political infighting and the country confronted with growing insurgent violence, she says the time has come for women to "think for themselves.... Because no one else is going to give a damn [about them] in Pakistan."
Weeks after the debate's airing, Malik was injured in a suspicious road accident. She was hospitalized and has since sought refuge in Dubai, where she continues working for "Voice of Women," a nonprofit organization she founded to help female victims of domestic violence and other abuse throughout Asia.
Violence against women is a widespread problem in Pakistan. Some 1,000 women die in honor killings every year. Reports suggest that as many as four in five women are subject to abuse in their own households.
Standing Up: Malik is no stranger to any of this. Born into a poor family of seven children in the northern city of Rawalpindi, her mission comes out of personal experience, ever since she was "a kid."
"I've been watching my dad hitting my mom for no reason, for the food. 'You did not cook the food on time,' and things like that. Little things," she says.
"When I grew older, my elder sister, she was 14, my father married her off. The other sister was 11, my father married her off. I was in the sixth standard [sixth grade in secondary school], when my father said that, 'Now it is your turn.' I stood up. And I was hardly 12, 13 at that time. I said, 'No, why should I get married? I mean, why, why should I? I mean, I don't want to!' And then my father said, 'No, you have to.' And this was the first time I stood up for myself."
In Malik's telling, her father, a retired army officer, told her he had no more money for her studies so she worked to put herself through school. At 17, she decided to go into show business, a decision derided by her relatives as an unconscionable disgrace.
She fell in love for the first time, she says, when she was 20 years old. Rumors abound, but she says she is not in a relationship at present, adding that things fell apart with a former boyfriend after she became a victim of physical abuse.
But she emerged from that experience with a message for Pakistani women. "I want to tell them that 'You are beautiful, and strong, and you don’t need to hide under the shadow of a man just because you're a woman,'" she says. "They have to be told that they don’t have to wait for a man to feed them, they have to be told that they are strong. These women don’t know how strong and beautiful they actually are."
Rising Tide Of Youth: Her decision to debate Qavi in public was an impromptu move -- she was not given advance notice, she says, that he would be participating in the interview.
"I had no idea," she says, "whether they would kill me when I stepped out of the [television] studio or they would welcome me."
As a 27-year-old celebrity, Malik is part of a growing majority in Pakistan, where over two-thirds of the population is under 30.
Pakistan is home to deeply rooted conservative values with unprecedented exposure to the modern world due to the ready availability of cheap modern technology and the country's widespread use of the English language.
Nineteen-year-old Siraj Ali, a Pakistani studying in Karachi, says Malik "was right about that cleric [Qavi]," adding that he and his friends "all support her." He doesn't think this is the dominant opinion among his peers, however, warning that many young people have been influenced by the fundamentalist Taliban.
Others believe more positive changes are afoot. Umar Saif, a 33-year-old Pakistani professor recently listed among MIT's prestigious Top Young Innovators, thinks Malik's generation will change Pakistan.
"Pakistan's really come of age, as most nations need to, and the next generation will usher in a time of modernization and usher in an era of political awareness, usher in an era of political tolerance, and just enlightenment," Saif says. "And we hope to embrace, you know, the civilized way the rest of the world has gone about their business."
Malik's encounter with the mullah may not be a glowing example of civilized discourse, but the bigger question -- for Pakistan -- is whether or not it's a step in the right direction.