Thursday, March 27, 2008

From Drag to Riches

The sophisticated and flirtatious Begum Nawazish Ali has been on Pakistani airwaves for a few years now. With people tuning in to watch her grill, joke around, and shamelessly flirt with her guests who include celebrities and politicians, her talk shows have been huge hits. (This shameless flirting demonstrated as she asks Bollywood star John Abraham to father her future children.) Her invasive questions, political interest, and classy style have made her a sensation on Pakistani television. Not to mention her beautiful saris, and flawless make-up.

And there is one important thing that makes her a pioneer in South Asian television. She is actually a he.

Begum Nawazish Ali is the alter ego of Ali Saleem, a 29 year old Pakistani man who identifies as a transsexual, bi-sexual man. Or as one article reported him saying "Actually, I like to say I'm tri-sexual -- I'll try anything." The son of a retired colonel he bases his alter ego on the many army general wives he's met throughout the years. Powerful women with great amounts of power. Begum Nawazish Ali is herself the middle aged widow of an army general.

One would easily think that such a personality would not be tolerated on television in a Muslim country. One may even think that people have made life hard for him. The Western media certainly seem to think so with their articles overflowing with shock. The New York Times "When She Speaks, He’s Breaking All of Islam’s Taboos " provides one example.

But reality is quite the opposite. He has never received any threats of any kind and is free to express himself on Pakistani television screens. As pointed out in this Los Angeles Times article " a country where extremists are at war with such cosmopolitan heresies, Saleem has never received a single threat over his open lifestyle."

Even religious leaders have not had any issues with the Begum. The Los Angeles Times tells us:

He gleefully recounted taking a domestic flight on which most of the passengers were religious leaders. He was collecting his bags from the overhead compartment upon landing, when one of the mullahs put a hand on his shoulder. He froze."He told me he liked the show," recalled Saleem, clearly thrilled to tell the story. "But he did remind me to be sure to pray every day."

Begum Nawazish Ali uses her sexuality as a tool to ask the tough questions. Being ultra flirty with her guests she is able to get away with tough questions while batting her eyelashes. However, her show has been criticized for trivializing politics. And although she does try to promote politicians she has been very critical of the dictatorship. In fact, last year the military government cancelled her show due to her excessive criticism of them. However, her popularity dictated that she return to the airwaves; and she did with her Late Night Show with Begum Nawazish Ali. Her popularity is so intense that she has even conducted some shows in India interviewing and teasing Bollywood stars.

Begum Nawazish Ali, in subtle ways, will often inject comments about sex and homosexuality. In her interview with John Abraham she told him that she would gladly get stoned with him. Talking about committing adultery and ridiculing stoning in the same breath. However, as Bruce Wallace pointed out, her riske remarks are very often delivered in English. Perhaps only for the ears of the educated who may be more likely to appreciate the sentiment.

Begum Nawazish Ali's appearance on Pakistani television, a country which has gone from being quite progressive to more conservative over the years, has been considered a breakthrough by the Western media. From the reports of various news outlets it would seem that such a personality was revolutionary. However, Ali states that her acceptance is a demonstration of the natural open minded nature of Pakistani people. This is not as much of a breakthrough as the West may suggest it is. She tells the Western media that Pakistan is not terrorist central, but rather a country of moderate Muslims. She also criticizes those who say that her appearance on television is following in the direction of the West. Acceptance of her is a Pakistani initiative she states. Pakistanis are not trying to be more Western by accepting her. They are naturally accepting.

Yet, one still needs to be careful. One cannot help but wonder why she has been so accepted. In a culture which has traditionally been quite homophobic her acceptance needs further analysis. Perhaps the Begum is right. Perhaps, Pakistanis are more accepting of non-heterosexual people than they are given credit for. However, one cannot forget that Ali Saleem is an educated man and this education is reflected in Begum Nawazish Ali. The privileges that he has would not be afforded to the majority of Pakistanis. Begum Nawazish Ali has status as does Ali Saleem. She is a powerful figure. She is also a figure who is openly criticizing the government. And the majority of Pakistanis have a great deal of criticisms for their government. Their sympathies would therefore lie with her in that regard. Perhaps, some just find her funny and entertaining because she is a man dressed like a woman. They find it amusing to see a man act in feminine ways. Heterosexist it is, yes. But that may be the reality for why some have accepted her.

Additionally, South Asian culture has for centuries had cross dessing male entertainers known as hijras.* Although their identities are much more complex and intricate than simply cross dressing men, their presence may have primed for acceptance among the Pakistani population. Many may see her as a rich, educated and privileged version of the hijras who is able to publically say what they cannot to whom they cannot, and entertain them while doing it. Additionally, the presence of hijras in Pakistan further trivializes Western media's exagerration of the revolutionary nature of Begum Nawazish Ali.

However, the fact that Begum Nawazish Ali has gained such popularity and love in a country so often labelled as a the most dangerous country in the world is commendable. Pakistanis may really be accepting of "alternate" sexualties. Maybe the Begum is right.

*My explanation of hijras is extremely superficial therefore I encourage readers to further investigate to understand and appreciate the lives of these people. The space and topic did not permit me to do justice to them.