Attacking fundamentalism with risque humor
If you have read many of our editorials you will know that we are of the mind that the best way to effect change in a country is from within. We also believe that the way you best get your point across is not by sanctions or ostracizing but by engaging. In a brave and controversial move, a new TV personality in Pakistan is taking the fight to the heart of religious fundamentalism in creating a character in drag, a transvestite by another name, that pokes fun at the zealots in the country,
Ali Sallem is the actor in question. His alter ego is “Begum Nawazish Ali”, the widow of an army colonel, Saleem, is a 30-year-old television presenter challenging Pakistan’s societal norms as the first open bisexual, a highly contentious act in a country where homosexuality is banned under sharia law. So far the reaction by many sophisticated Pakistanis has been good. They find the humor and satire to their taster, but the Begum persona is causing offense, of course, in more traditional sectors.
Surprisingly the show has produced many high profile supporters who are braving censure to appear on Begum’s panel as celebrity interviewees in the style of Dame Edna or Graham Norton. Pakistani politicians, film stars and army dignitaries have all recently made guest appearances on the show which is the new hit on the Aaj Channel. Sallem even has a word for those he seeks to challenge, he terms the fundamentalists “fundu” . More power to Salleem and Begum we say.
Saleem, whose show was first aired in 2005, is planning to take the act a stage further. The series will be filmed live from this autumn and include topics that have, until now, been considered taboo. He has also created another “female” character called Rengeli, more “flamboyant and tarty”, who will host a game show. “What’s happening in Pakistan is that society is becoming more polarised,” he says. “There’s one set of people inclined towards a hardline vision and another reacting to this madness by having raves on the beach and popping pills. I want to help people develop tolerance. We have revamped the entire show and it is now going to be more thematic and address issues of sexuality, Pakistani hunks, legalising alcohol and having pubs and bars.”
Cross-dressing is rarely condoned in Islamic society, and Saleem’s act, filled with camp, smutty double entendres, would normally draw the censure of TV executives, mullahs and politicians. Growing up in a privileged Pakistani household (his father was an army officer) he became inspired by female figureheads such as Benazir Bhutto, Margaret Thatcher and the classic Bollywood singer and actress, Noor Jahan. He says: “I grew up in a military environment under Zia al Huq’s regime which had a deeply conservative, madrassa culture which I think is pseudo-Islamic culture.
“I was nine when I became a fan of Benazir Bhutto and her liberal consciousness. All my teachers were wives of army officers and I loved dressing up. Every time my mother left the house, I would dress up in her clothes. When she found out I was doing this, she’d scold me. I did a lot of role-playing. When I was a little older, she took me to a psychiatrist and told him I was attracted to other men. He told her I was perfectly normal, and explained that there’s a physical gender and an emotional gender. Emotionally, I had always felt as if I was a woman.”
Saleem’s family accepted his sexuality, and he began doing skits at his school, Cadet College Hasan Abdal (considered the Eton of Pakistan) dressed as Benazir Bhutto, which amused teachers and pupils. Initially, friends discouraged him from taking a drag act to producers. “Some of my friends called up and said, “Are you mad? People will not let you out of the house”. But the exact opposite happened. Some of the most fundu [fundamental] people have come up to me and said I am doing a fantastic job.”
But at first the show was met with suspicion from President Pervez Musharaff’s military commanders, because they feared references to the Begum’s fictional husband as an army colonel might be a slight on the country’s military regime. After the fourth programme, death threats were sent. “It was already very popular by then,” Saleem says. “I got a call from the channel’s HQ to say we were showing an army colonel’s wife to be flirting with men, and that we might be suggesting army officer wives are flirtatious. I got a call from military intelligence who invited me for tea. I thought they’d put me behind bars but instead, they had a proper tea laid out, with all the treats, and the colonel gave me his phone number and told me to ring him if I had any trouble. He said, “Just be patriotic and keep Pakistan in your mind”