ISI in the Raw

If political asylum is the goal, then it must be a most unusual manner to go about it. Pakistani actress Veena Malik’s photograph appears on the cover of an Indian men’s magazine. She is nude. This is only one part of the exposure. The other is a tattoo on her arm with the initials ISI, which she says “was intended to be a humorous take on the fact that anything — big or small — is blamed on ISI in a funny way.”

The reaction has been rather quirky. Pakistanis are associating the ISI, Inter-Services Intelligence, with Islam and patriotism and the whole nation. While there is most certainly an objection to her being in the buff, the emphasis this time is on the intelligence agency’s reputation. For a moment, imagine that she could possibly be an agent. After all, Mata Hari spent her early years in France dancing in the nude, leading a life that did not beg for answers and seduced many a powerful man. It was on one such sleeping assignment that she was recruited by the Germans to spy during World War I. Her initial forays were desultory and her abilities not of much significance. Her artistic background made espionage seem far more intriguing than it was. Her true calling remained the use of her body, primarily for her own pleasure and later to subsist off.

Seduction thrives on the seamy side and works its guile in risqué risky adventures. While we are hypothesising, what if Veena Malik had RAW embossed on her arm instead? India’s Research and Analysis Wing is often held culpable for some outings in Pakistan, although to a lesser degree than the ISI is in India. If the idea was to humour as much as be humorous, then her cultural and subliminal Indianness might have gained some currency and shaken the system. Perhaps not as an agent, then as agent provocateur.

Politics Passionale

Women’s clothing and unclothing often offer a peep into a society’s mores. It would be interesting to posit two recent news items.

– R&B singer Rihanna’s video ‘We Found Love’ has been banned – in France. It has been deemed too raunchy for daytime viewing as it features shoplifting, smoking and the singer being slapped on the bottom.

– An offical report submitted to the authorities says that if women are allowed to drive they will have the option for premarital sex – in Saudi Arabia.

Both are political decisions. In France they assume that young people go to bed at 10 pm, and a bit of S&M is unheard of. In Saudi Arabia the authorities think that only married women will drive and transfer the action from the backseat of the car to the front.

Are these countries protecting their citizens or the ethos? Do individual acts make a nation decadent? Veena Malik does not represent Pakistan, but she is a Pakistani. By virtue of that, the country will see her as one of them. Is her rebellion akin to more discreet forms of protest? Is she exposing hypocrisy, or is she using the hypocrisy to get mileage?

Ms. Malik says her photograph has been morphed; the editor has evidence of the photo session. A woman whose claim to fame has been boobs and bombast is getting jittery. The magazine’s website changed the cover. She is not fully naked in this one, but she is shown pulling the pin out of a grenade and the tagline says: “Pakistani WMD”.

This is not about the body. It is clearly political. Pakistan is seen as a nation that toys with arms and intelligence agencies. Sexing up these only reaffirms the potency.

Gender Games

Why is a woman’s body used to make political statements? This is what contemporary ignorant feminists do not seem to understand. Causes cover them with cabbage leaves to propagate vegetarianism, or blood to protect animals, or even dowdiness to protest against the cult of beauty. Anorexics are made to bare skeletal rib cages and the obese spill out like beanbags to alert us about the harms of under and over indulgence.

The upfront attitude of pornography is shirked for the viles of such conscience-tappers. Susan Sontag had said, “Fear of sexuality is the new, disease-sponsored register of the universe of fear in which everyone now lives.” Such fear does not resolve the gender barrier, but increases the chasm. Conquering fear becomes a matter of survival. It requires machismo. There may be no damsel in distress prototype today but women continue to be afraid of the consequences of their actions. The whole build-up of ‘choice’ leaves them with the baby, the bathwater and dry taps. Tough luck, she chose it, is the refrain.

Women also choose to play the game according to rules made by men. Had Veena Malik posed in her national dress with a sash that said ISI, would it have the same impact or get similar reactions? Is not the message the same? Or is madness the method?

What does it say about a society where a person like her stands for freedom and feminism? The shedding of clothes is only about apparent apparel. If such societies are constrained by religion and narrow views of nationalism, then why do we not see their men drop clothes and make a statement? How many Pakistani feminists consider the women in Heera Mandi, their famed red-light district, free? Quite a few ply their trade of their own volition and operate under duress of the same mullahs and the same government. Why are they not legitimate representatives of women’s empowerment?

Such feminism is simplified to the point of being redundant when it will not protest against cultural shackles where it matters – and indeed a good deal of music and dance was preserved in those fetid lanes – but stand by those on the make. The pecking order is clearly defined. And it comes in the form of some precious garbage about the difference between the vulgar and the erotic. A person getting off is not thinking about lighting, angles and whether the sheets are satin or of a cloth as rough as they might like it.

India Copulated

Just when the ISI in the raw controversy cropped up, India was witness to a marketing gimmick camouflaged as a film. ‘The Dirty Picture’ is based on the real-life story of a South Indian actress, Silk Smitha – her overt sexuality, her exploitation and her ultimate destruction and death by suicide.

For months news items and television promos were showcasing the actress who essays the part – Vidya Balan –  in ‘character’. Bright clothes and a wink, irrespective of which programme she was on. The film has been declared a hit at the box office and almost all reviews and stories have been applauding Ms. Balan for her courage. This is such irony. No one ever thought of Silk as courageous. She was dismissed as a soft porn star. There are many such stories and the entertainment industry, including Hollywood, has used women. Those who make it to the big grade deny the casting couch. The others like Silk have no choice. They remain where they began, bathing under a waterfall or falling off slopes with an ageing hero.

Bollywood has been commending the fact that a ‘respectable’ actress took up the role. This is hypocrisy and exploitative. They are using the story of a woman whose family lives in poverty in some village, and yet tacitly they are running her down. All this talk about celebrating the body is so much smooth talk. There are many such young women who perform dance numbers and they are called item girls. They go through the process of shedding their clothes, but no one says they are celebrating their bodies. They are well endowed, but no one says they are the ideal “voluptuous Indian women” as though it is a national asset. These women are low down and if they flick their tongues or bite their lips suggestively it will be deemed obscene.

The pampered star takes such a role as a “challenge”, implying the hierarchy. It is nothing short of patronising. The urban herd has certified that this is not sleaze. It makes them feel smug. Moreover, women are expected to understand that this is liberating and empowering. Did Silk have a choice? Will middle-class women “unleash their sexual side” without being branded, if not as floozies, then nymphomaniacs?

Ms. Balan who is on a high right now assisted by her PR machinery talks about Silk with a know-it-all attitude: “She’s unapologetic about using her body and her sexuality as a big ticket to fame. There’s no shame in doing it.”

No one has asked if she had done it or would do it, since there is no shame to it.

That would be putting a wet blanket over a wet dream.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at


Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections