After Veena Malik: Thoughts on Morality

By Anjum Altaf

Veena Malik has provided Indians and Pakistanis something to talk about – to, at, and across each other. There is much that can be ignored but a few strands strike me as promising and worth pursuing.

Most of the outpouring, at least on the blogs, is a voicing of individual personal opinions for and against Ms. Malik’s act. That, to me at least, is the least interesting aspect of the fallout. Why should my personal opinion carry significance for anyone besides myself? If the objective were to run an opinion poll, people could vote yes or no anonymously and be done with it.

It would be different if the person offering the opinion were a public figure. Take Imran Khan, for example: his opinion on the incident could provide a clue where he might lead the nation if given the opportunity.How would his yuppie fan base respond if he took the line of the born-again Muslim? And how would his conservative supporters react if he came out in favor of individual choice? It could be useful to know how he might negotiate this cultural minefield. No wonder Imran Khan is keeping his lips sealed while those who have less at stake shout themselves hoarse.

Individuals voicing their opinions do believe they are supporting them with arguments. But these are nothing more than reiterations of the cultural positions that give rise to their opinions. Those against consider the act irreligious, immoral, contrary to social values and dishonorable to the family and the nation. Those for consider it an expression of free choice and individual right. The hard line separating family-value waalas from individual-choice waalas leaves hardly any grey area for meaningful discussion.

It is noticeable that there is barely any attempt by either side to try and understand the reasons for the conflicting opinions. The immediate recourse is to resort to name calling: the disapprovers consider the others depraved; the approvers deem the others backward or apologists for social oppression.

It is equally remarkable that individuals simply assume their social and cultural norms to be the touchstones for the rest of the world. Any deviation from their values is taken to be a deviation from propriety or common sense. Why that should be the case is not considered worth discussing.

Five issues seem worth exploring. First, does it make sense to judge a subset of society by norms relevant to another? Second, can problems in a subset be attributed primarily to social and cultural norms? Third, what is it that gives rise to the notion of a moral order used to judge individual acts? Fourth, how do moral orders change and evolve? And fifth, what should be the strategy for those working for change within heterogeneous societies?

The answer to the first question is that it is always possible to pass a verdict on one subset of society from the vantage point of another. If something doesn’t raise an eyebrow on a beach in Sydney, why should it be such a big issue in Pakistan? One answer, most often found on blogs, is that Pakistan is socially and culturally backward compared to Australia and should strive to be more like the latter if it wants to be part of the advanced, civilized world. This is hardly a useful answer and of little help in suggesting what should be done in the real Pakistan of today given that there is no magic wand that can transform the terrible is to the wonderful ought. If the objective is not just to score points but to suggest a concrete strategy for change there is no alternative to understanding a social subset of society on its own terms. This is not an argument for cultural relativism in which everything is considered right; it is to recognize the difference between explanation and approval, between finding a way forward and passing judgment.

The second question speaks to the charge that there are horrible things going on in Pakistan that stem from its notion of family values and family honor. This may be true, but surely one is not arguing that horrible things of a different nature are not taking place in Australia or the US. What is to be gained by attributing all those horrible things to an unmitigated individualism? Once again, the vacuous desire to score points overwhelms any serious attempt to get at the bottom of what drives the ills that plague various societies or subsets of societies and what they should be doing at the margin to move in the desired direction.

The third question actually begins to provide the conceptual apparatus needed for concrete analysis and action. Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist, has made a useful contribution by identifying five psychological drivers of our sense of morality. These comprise our attitudes to fairness, protection (of the vulnerable), loyalty (to one’s group), respect (for authority), and purity (or sanctity). According to Haidt, liberals place more value on the first two while conservatives stress the last three more. Every society has its mix of liberals and conservatives (how they get to be either is a separate question of much interest) and not much is to be gained by talking past each other. What is needed is a way for the two sides to engage and figure out the concerns that motivate moral judgments rather than to pass judgments of right and wrong. Thus, if Haidt argues that every subset has to be understood on its own terms, one needs to understand the rationale of his argument (and oppose it if warranted on grounds of logic) rather than to label him an apologist for patriarchal oppression.

The fourth question points to the fact that almost all societies are in a state of cultural change. Every society has its fundamentalists, conservatives, liberals and radicals. Every society, at least in recent times, has cultural tension across generations. Acts like those of Veena Malik push at the margins of the acceptable and set off a chain of reactions. How the equilibrium shifts and where it settles temporarily is very much a factor of the strength of the various subsets at any given point in time. Cultural change is not always in one direction; there have been many examples of severe cultural backlashes in the world – from Weimar to Nazi Germany being a particularly egregious recent example.

The fifth question brings us to the nitty-gritty of what is to be done to fight the widespread gender discrimination in countries like Pakistan. I doubt if Veena Malik’s act was spurred by a desire to strike one for oppressed women but it certainly provides an opening to take another look at the phenomenon. And this connects back with the strategic assessment of the balance of forces in society and the tactical need to understand rather than judge contrary moral standpoints. Those involved in this struggle in Pakistan have noted that the number of radical feminists has not increased much over the last many decades. The feminists who have felt it necessary to make a point of their individualism (say by smoking in public) have simply alienated a lot of women who might otherwise have been receptive to arguments that relied on a more familiar point of departure. As a result, it is actually the conservatives who have been gaining ground to the surprise and frustration of the liberals and radicals.

To castigate this trend without trying to understand it is to miss the point entirely. Veena Malik has given us one more opportunity to fathom the emotions that circumscribe our moral judgments and to tailor our strategies accordingly.

Useful Readings:

 Jonathan Haidt, Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion.
Jonathan Haidt, What Makes People Vote Republican.
Ellen Willis, Escape from Freedom.
South Asian, The Confusions of Imran Khan.


  • mazHur
    Posted at 20:57h, 17 December Reply

    Things such as Nudity and Porn are NOT norms of any country.
    Regardless of wilfull violations, a Muslim, by the code of conduct prescribed by his/her faith, is forbidden to change his ‘norms’ from place to place…even a Hindu or Sikh is. For example, you will hardly find a Muslim, unless he wilfully deviates from the rule, relishing pork or a Hindu beef (cow-meat) or a Sikh shaving his hair, at home or even if he’s abroad. It all depends on how sincere one is to its faith. If he willfully volunteers to act in a way derogatory to the norms of his/her faith in such a fashion as Veena did, she cannot be understood to be faithful to her faith and nothing more than a deviate and lecher just like any prostitute is. Had she declared herself a prostitute rather than a model or actress her fellow countrymen may have not taken that keen notice of her conduct as they know all prostitutes, regardless of their caste, creed or religion, are fluid and bereft of any religion except money.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 12:17h, 18 December

      Mazhur: In my view a number of steps are necessary before engaging in a discussion:

      1. A realization that culture and religion are not the same thing. There were cultures in South Asia before the arrival of Islam; there was a culture in the Polynesian islands before the arrival of Christianity. This distinction has an important bearing on the understanding of norms and therefore on attitudes to morality.
      2. A realization that there is a distinction between nudity and porn. All nudity is not porn. It is only a very limited sense of history that gives rise to that confusion.
      3. A reading of history to determine the place of nudity in societies and its place as a norm that varies with cultures even within the same religions. Two articles can provide a starting point:

      4. A move away from tarring people who don’t subscribe to one’s values with derogatory terms. Abuse is not a substitute for argument.
      5. A realization that some comments are empty. If prostitutes are bereft of any religion except money, one can also say that politicians are bereft of all religion except power and traders are bereft of all religion except profit. What is the relevance of statements like these?
      6. An acknowledgement that there is no one person annointed with the authority to give certificates of religiosity to others.

      Once we work through these points, we will arrive at the place where we can move from denunciation to debate.

    • ahmad khan
      Posted at 11:22h, 21 March

      Islamically is there any distinction between nudity and porn ? I don’t think so. Also we have the criterion al Furqan – the Quran and the sunnah to decide on this issue.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:42h, 21 March

      Ahmad: Are you sure? I would be very surprised if no distinction can be made between the two. Human beings are born nude; is the act of birth pornographic? Almost nude males (think of wrestlers and kabaddi players) are not considered pornographic at all. Could it be all in the head? After all, there were many tribes in which nudity was the norm and it was not considered pornographic except by Christian missionaries. Early Christianity must also have thought of the two as the same but now a distinction is made. I guess that is because even religious sensibilities evolve over time.

  • Anwar
    Posted at 01:44h, 18 December Reply

    It is better to kill this subject rather provide another platform for silliness…

  • Sabeen Mahmud
    Posted at 06:20h, 18 December Reply

    Killing this subject won’t make it go away. And after all, why should it? Morality is a complex and hugely interesting phenomenon and as Anjum Sb has articulately argued, Veena Malik provides opportunities for debate around a range of issues. Unfortunately most of what we hear is shrill, subjective, and devoid of nuance.

  • mazHur
    Posted at 18:51h, 21 March Reply

    After all how many women are there like Veena Mullick??
    She’s an ‘oddity” and let her leave as so!!

    With the Libertarians all is okay as long as you live.
    But there are certain universal truths attached to morals and ethics which cannot be denied. At least in Islam there is NO room for nudity or pornography. One should not try to trespass the faith he or she belongs to….as this would reflect upon their ”allegiance” and ”faithfulness” to what they are holding on..

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 10:11h, 22 March

      Mazhur: You are confusing Libertarianism with Libertinism, a Libertarian with a Libertine.

      How do you know for certain that “there are certain universal truths attached to morals and ethics which cannot be denied”? Even if there is no room in Islam for nudity and pornography that does not make that a universal norm. As mentioned before, there are many societies in which various degrees of nudity are acceptable with no association to pornography.

      “One should not try to trespass the faith he or she belongs to” is an empty statement. How many adhere to that? It has been repeatedly mentioned that Pakistan is among the leading per capita consumers of Internet pornography. What happened to the faith that people are “holding on” to in which there is no room for nudity and pornography? Let us leave aside the questions of why this might be so and whether it is necessarily bad.

  • mazHur
    Posted at 20:30h, 22 March Reply

    @ SouthAsian

    Every religion provides code of morals and ethics and these are not only restricted to Islam. Nudity connotes offensive nudity…not the one that is culturally permissible or the one that does not conflict with your religion. For example, women in the rural Punjab or elsewhere may wear Dhoti in the fields ,men too wear dhoti or laacha…(regardless of which religion they belong to) but that doesn’t seem offensive to outside people because that attire is worn out of necessity and not for the sake of nudity or semi-nakedness. Similarly, the Burqa or Hijab worn by Muslim women tends to hide ”nudity” for a Muslim women must not show her ‘adornments’ to public. Even among the Hindu women Ghoonghat or the Pallooo of the Sari is used to hide the view from strangers….
    As for some African tribes living in the nude is rather a question of cultural or civil backwardness and has nothing to do with ”nudity”. this simple fact is understood and accepted by one and all. Why go far? Look at women in Chota Nagpur where both men and women were seen in the nude…women are/were topless among some tribes but their nudity was ”nudity simplicitor” not ”gross’….so nobody would look down upon them or the way they lived.

    Veena being a Muslim deviated from the teachings of her faith and did what a religious deviate or wayward would ordinarily do for some vested interest. There are prostitutes in the fold of every religion but they are so not because of their religions but out of their own choice, revolt or some external compulsion. What they do is neither the norm of their religion or ethics and morals contained therein. Nudity when out of control paves a way for porno and when a person becomes ”shameless” of everything…good or bad–he or she takes over porno as something not bad. that’s a way of their thinking but in normal course both nudity and porno are morally, ethically and religiously considered as bad and contemptuous. But there are always exceptions coined by people of every faith to commit excesses….beginning with nudity they end up in the brothels and porn studious.

    If some Muslims of Pakistan are leading in porn-watching it does not mean their act is endorsed by their religion. No. What they are doing is due to easy and cheap excess to satanic sources on the web…and every human being is readily attracted to evil than virtue,. That’s how the world goes….but you cannot call it as a’ culture’ or ‘custom’ of the people because the porn watchers do it in hiding….they do it hidden because it is Bad and betrays evil disliked by sensible people who believe in ”values’.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 06:34h, 23 March

      Mazhur: There are several points that can be discussed further:

      Every religion does stipulate a code of morals and ethics but in the real world the interpretation of this code adapts over time. The extent of nudity that is acceptable to Christianity now is not the same as it was a hundred years ago. It is culture that determines the customs that are tolerated by religion. That is the reason why in the same religion different customs prevail across geographically separated cultures – dance is considered offensive in Afghanistan but a part of life in Bangladesh. Should one insist on some notion of religious correctness and condemn one culture while upholding the other as the model for the entire Islamic world?

      The perspective in which tribes were considered culturally “backward” is not popular any more. It is just a symptom of the same arrogance with which White people considered other races backward at one time.

      What is considered an “excess” at one point in time usually ends up becoming quite acceptable at another. Consider how obscene it was considered at one time for women to wear jeans and sleeveless blouses in Pakistan at one time. Saudi Arabia will be sending female athletes to the Olympics for the first time his year – imagine they will allow their women to run in public!

      What kind of straw religions are those that can only hold up if there are no temptations? Officials in Pakistan used to accept bribes in hiding; now they do it in the open. Don’t you think other “evils” would follow the same course?

      If every human being is readily attracted to evil and religion is unable to prevent it, what is the point of having a religion?

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