The South Asia Channel

The real shame in Pakistan

In this month’s issue of FHM India, an international men’s magazine, Pakistani actress Veena Malik made worldwide headlines with a risqué nude photo shoot. While much of the attention has been on what Malik wasn’t wearing, one of the most powerful elements of her photo shoot was what she was sporting: a big, bold tattoo ...


In this month’s issue of FHM India, an international men’s magazine, Pakistani actress Veena Malik made worldwide headlines with a risqué nude photo shoot. While much of the attention has been on what Malik wasn’t wearing, one of the most powerful elements of her photo shoot was what she was sporting: a big, bold tattoo on her left arm, stating very simply, "ISI," for Pakistani’s secretive Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.

The cover headline: "Pakistani W.M.D. Veena Malik Shows You How to Throw a Grenade!" 

Indeed, the cover has been explosive;, for instance splashed a headline on its blog: "India and Pakistan Are Going Nuclear Over Provocative Political Tattoo." And the photo has elicited a furious reaction in Pakistan’s media and in its living rooms.

In one fell swoop, the enormous tattoo on a bare woman’s body managed to demystify, emasculate and parody the ISI — something most people have been afraid to do in public since the inception of the agency a year after the birth of the nation in 1947. Founded with a mission of coordinating intelligence in the country after Pakistan’s loss to India in the 1947 war in Kashmir, the agency has become a feared, though privately mocked, enterprise, its hands allegedly in every back-room Pakistani deal; rigging elections, training militants for battle in India and Afghanistan, and monitoring its own citizens. The tattoo’s location on Malik’s body takes on special meaning in light of retired Adm. Mike Mullen’s statement in September that the militant Haqqani Network, considered by most Western analysts and experts to be based in the tribal areas of Pakistan, is a "veritable arm" of the ISI. 

All the while, the ISI works in the cloak of darkness. In 2002, when I was trying to find my kidnapped Wall Street Journal colleague Daniel Pearl, I met an ISI officer in my living room in Karachi who acknowledged his employer, but introduced himself as "Major." "Major what?" I asked. "Major Major," he said. Nice. Really helpful.


To scholars on Pakistan, the ISI tattoo is emblematic of an important new civil discourse occurring in Pakistan over issues that were formerly taboo, such as the role of the ISI in society. Hassan Abbas, the author of Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army, and America’s War on Terror, about growing militancy in Pakistan, said new media freedoms are eliciting rich debate in the country on deep, contested issues "such as the role of religion in society and the interference of the military in political arena." He adds, "These issues are being openly debated in Pakistan, and that is, overall, a healthy development."

Kabeer Sharma, editor of FHM India, says the ISI tattoo was meant to be a sardonic reflection of India’s own conspiracy theories about the intelligence agency. "In India, you say, ‘The milk has gone bad. The ISI did it,’ They blame all of their problems on ISI," says Sharma.

Sharma, the son of an Indian satirist and New Delhi bookstore owner, says that a dilemma on the subcontinent is that folks don’t laugh enough over the absurdities of politics. "The problem," he says, "is that we all blame our problems on this imaginary force. Who is this ISI?" Meanwhile, on the Pakistan side, everything is blamed on RAW. "We collectively have no sense of humor. We have no sense of irony," he says.

As a media image, the Malik photo was a genius expression of a real counterculture movement taking root in Pakistan, taking a dig at the secretive "Major Major" culture of the ISI, by literally exposing the agency — and by extension, the government — to the light of day, if just in a simple tattoo. (Malik says that the photo was altered, and both Malik and FHM are engaged in a legal battle over the issue.)

While a Pakistani newspaper said the country "yawns"at the Malik photo, it chronicled columns, commentaries and jokes circulating in the nation, including one that goes like this: "Her arm says ISI but the picture is RAW," a reference to India’s intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing.

But this isn’t just a conspiracy hatched in India (though the magazine was produced there), feeding the siege mentality behind so much of the rhetoric in Pakistan. In a country where the "ghairat brigade," or honor squad, of talking heads takes regularly to the airwaves to defend Pakistan’s honor against enemies — perceived and imagined — the photo shoot was a victory for a new movement that is emerging in Pakistan: the beghairat brigade, or the squad "without honor," or more aptly the "shameless brigade." 

To many, the beghairat brigade offers a counter to the conspiracy theories that so permeate debates in Pakistan. Josh White, a scholar on Pakistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says, "I think the significance of the small but interesting beghairat movement is that it is trying to forge a way of being genuinely nationalistic without accepting the narrative that all of Pakistan’s problems are the result of someone else’s meddling."

Malik and her generation in Pakistani society illustrate a deeper battle that is playing out in Pakistan and Muslim communities on issues of honor, or ghairat, and shame, called sharam. Flagging this evolution, the acerbic Pakistani columnist Nadeem Paracha wrote earlier this year, "Goodbye ghairat."

With a sense of wit, irony and humor, the beghairat brigade offers the nation an opportunity to expunge itself of the corrosive relationship with traditional honor-shame culture, by challenging the warped sense of honor and dishonor that has defined much of the country’s ethos on issues from corruption to nuclear non-proliferation, "honor killings" of women and men, homegrown militant networks, and the ISI. And the beghairat’s work is rooted in Pakistani tradition with sardonic 20th century writers such as Saadat Hasan Manto, the author of the must-read book, Letters to Uncle Sam, and a favorite of Malik’s.

The Pakistani military’s public relations office reportedly sent a text message to local journalists from the Pakistani grousing that the photo was "the height of humiliation for Pakistan, done by a Pakistani on Indian soil." In a Pakistani socialists’ listserv, one Pakistani writer, giving the ISI acronym new meaning, wrote, tongue-in-cheek,"Is this part of a grand conspiracy to implicate the great International Soldiers of Islam (ISI) in a controversy by the enemies of Islam…." If so, he joked, "every soldier of Islam would be eyeing to be part of the investigation team."

What is ironic is that while there have been calls to revoke Malik’s Pakistani citizenship (rejected, fortunately, by the courts), there are some less-than-exemplary characters who have been lauded in the country by the "ghairat brigade." For instance, Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber, is considered a victim by many in Pakistan, despite having confessed to the crime for which he has been imprisoned, the attempted murder of a number of innocents.

Then there is A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist who signed a confession in 2004 that he gave nuclear secrets to the North Koreans, Iran and Libya, in violation of international nonproliferation agreements; he was pardoned, and today he is a hero in the country. Years ago, Pakistanis took to the streets when American agents caught and extradited Mir Amal Kansi, a Pakistani who shot and killed CIA employees in 1993 as they sat in their cars at a traffic light in Langley, Va. And, then, lest we forget, there is the serious homegrown militancy problem of a Punjabi Taliban and a Pakistani Taliban that includes tens of thousands of militant soldiers, based on many estimates, freely living in the country without much harassment.

Finally, there is Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani MIT graduate known as "Lady al-Qaeda." She was convicted last year in a U.S. court for attempting to shoot a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, but, in a country where the average income is about $450 a year, the government of Pakistan allocated some $2 million for her defense, and Pakistanis in the "Free Aafia" movement march regularly on the streets. 

Deborah Scroggins, a journalist and author of the provocative forthcoming book, Wanted Women: Faith, Lies and the War on Terror: The Lives of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui, says, "If Aafia Siddiqui is Pakistan’s ‘daughter of the nation,’ Veena Malik is her perfect alter ego. The ‘ghairat brigade’ holds up Aafia as the symbol of Pakistan victimized by the West. Veena mocks their pretentions to purity and challenges their obsession with sex."

Scroggins lays out the contrast that is symbolic of the divide that has engulfed Pakistan: Born in 1972, Siddiqui comes from the rigid, puritantical, Deobandi interpretation of Islam, and came of age during the 1980s, when jihad was celebrated in Pakistan as the source of the great defeat over the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. "She’s revered by the ‘ghairat brigade’ because although she went to the U.S. to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brandeis University, she never ‘went over to the other side,’ so to speak" Scroggins adds. "She never stopped raising money for jihad. She continued to view the U.S. as the enemy of Pakistan and of Muslims. When she was captured in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s right-wing pundits and politicians rushed to accuse the country’s democratically elected government of selling her to the U.S. in exchange for money, even though there was no evidence that the government had anything to do with it."  

Born in 1984, "Veena is a symbol of another Pakistan, one that has existed since the founding of the state, but that we’ve seen less and less of with the rise of Islamization," says Scroggins. "It’s an irreverrant, mocking, creative, secular Pakistan — the voice of writers and poets like Ahmed Faiz," a biting 20th century intellectual. "Unfortunately it tends to be confined to the upper classes and is very much under threat these days," she says. 

Both Malik and Siddiqui "broke the rules about the way Pakistani women are supposed to behave," Scroggins says. Siddiqui was divorced from her doctor husband and remarried a younger man, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad’s nephew, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, another 9/11 facilitator. Her activities endangered her children; she was caught shooting at a U.S. soldier. "But she is forgiven for all of that because Pakistanis believe she did it for Pakistan and Islam," says Scroggins. "It’s assumed that Veena, on the other hand, is only having her nude picture taken for money. And that’s the way the ‘ghairat brigade’ always portrays the motives of Pakistan’s secularists."  

Aisha Chowdhry, a 24-year-old Pakistani-American journalist who produced a documentary, "Inside the Tinder Box," about Pakistan, says the Malik cover, whether nude as it appeared or topless, as Malik insists the photo was originally, "should not come as a surprise" to those watching the counterculture movement in Pakistan. "Art always has been a way for Pakistanis to showcase how they feel," she says. "Today, there are songs criticizing the government, paintings depicting terrorism in Pakistan, and now a racy photo of one of the country’s most famous models with an ISI tattoo."

Chowdhry says, "In a country where journalists get killed if they dare to investigate sensitive issues, music videos and plays are one of the few ways to connect the young generation with what is going on in their country, and maybe even make a positive change someday."

In a piece on al-Jazeera before the Malik controversy, Syed Ali Abbas Zaida, founder of the Pakistan Youth Alliance, asked, "Can the youth of Pakistan inspire change and turn into pro-active citizens who agree to disagree peacefully?" The next month, the aptly-named band "Beghairat Brigade," uploaded its catchy new tune, "Aalu Anday" (or "Eggs and Potatoes"), calling out the politicians and military for their ineptitude in running the country. 

Pakistani singer Ali Azmat just put out a new song, "Bomb Phata," ("Bomb Exploded"), that chronicles the major actors that play a part in Pakistan’s instability, from President Asif Ali Zardari to army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. It speaks to the daily worries about electricity and food shortages that vex Pakistanis while bombs explode in Lahore, Karachi, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

And people regularly slam the government’s inability to contain the domestic terrorism that is striking the country. This year, Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi won a prestigious award for his art installation, "Blessings upon the land of my love," describing his work as showing "the bloody aftermath of a bombing."

Malik’s photo is a little more subtle, but in its nuance, it’s likely to become an iconic symbol of a moment when one Pakistani decided to, quite literally and shamelessly, strip bare the truth of how institutions in Pakistan, are focused on the wrong priorities. "My dear patriots, there are far graver issues than this which need your serious consideration," wrote Pakistani economist and writer Raza Habib Raja, after the photo spread earned the rancor of the honor brigade. "The biggest issue is perhaps your screwed up mind set which gets riled up on these trivialities while completely ignoring much serious problems like rising extremism, sectarian killings and massive inequality."

Raja concluded: "…I loved that ISI tattoo. Now that was really liberating and bold!!!"

Asra Q. Nomani, a former reporter at the Wall Street Journal, is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She teaches journalism at Georgetown University.

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