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Dec 14 2011

When censorship goes weird

Long-time Cromrades will know, given my unabashed free speech stance, that I am decidedly not a fan of censorship. While I recognize that individuals have a right to privacy, I also know that large institutions (be they private or, especially, public) must be held accountable. This means that more transparency is good, and that censorship is bad.

Censorship is especially bad when it is done by large institutions against individual people. Provided that communication does not immediate place lives in danger, or that the speech in question is not slanderous or fraudulent, there is no justifiable reason to censor unpopular speech. In fact, if recent events have shown us anything, it’s that the more attention you draw to something you do not wish seen, the more people look at it out of sheer morbid curiosity.

Often, censorship is disturbing. Occasionally, it is overblown and counterproductive. But sometimes… well sometimes it’s just weird:

A row has erupted over an image of Pakistani actress Veena Malik sporting the initials ISI on her arm, with FHM India insisting it is not fake. It has caused a sensation in Pakistan for both the nudity and the initials of Pakistan’s controversial Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency. Pakistani media have quoted a spokesman for Ms Malik as saying she never took part in such a photoshoot. But FHM India’s editor told the BBC that nothing had been doctored.

So Veena Malik, who is an actress with a history of thumbing her nose at ‘the man’, posed nude for a FHM photo shoot. I say all power to her if that’s what she wants to do. The cover photo looks good, and since it was done with her consent I’ve got no real problem.

The weird comes in when her PR people start claiming that she didn’t pose nude, and then that she did pose, but not with any tattoo insulting Pakistan’s shadowy intelligence agency. What makes this story even weirder is that FHM would obviously have a whole number of photos of her posing that they could produce at any moment. I don’t know how many of you have been to a photo shoot, but hundreds of shots are taken in a variety of poses from a number of angles. Ms. Malik would know this, and so (one would assume) would her handlers.

So then what the hell is this about?

Pakistani actress Veena Malik has filed a defamation suit against an Indian magazine for a “morphed” cover photo of her posing nude with the initials of Pakistan’s intelligence agency on her arm. Malik’s spokesman, Sohail Rasheed, said on Monday that the actress was seeking 100 million rupees ($2 million) in damages from FHM India, which insists the nude cover shoot was genuine and consensual.

This seems like it would be a pretty obvious open-and-shut case.

“Your honour, we have a series of documents outlining, in detail, our agreement with Ms. Malik.” “Prosecution?”
“Those were doctored too!”
“Your honour, we also have hundreds of additional nude photos of the plaintiff, clearly taken with her willing participation.”
“Let me see those! Hmm… I’ll be in my chambers.”

And yet she’s suing. There are some aspects of this story that are weird, and there are others that are pretty funny:

“Veena Malik never indulged in nudity and has no intention to do it in future,” he added.

Not even in the shower? Does she own several pairs of jean shorts? How does she change? How exactly does one indulge in nudity? Is it like a rich chocolate fudge sundae of nakedness (which, by the way, is how I will be referring to myself from now on)?

Other aspects of it aren’t particularly funny. If you were worried that the misogynist religious patriarchy wasn’t going to make an appearance here, don’t worry – I’ve got you covered (pun totally intended):

The photo has so far garnered little interest in Pakistan, but has incurred the wrath of her father, who said he had disowned her over her scandalous work in arch-foe India, which had “humiliated” the family, the country, and Islam.

Weeping, retired soldier Malik Mohammad Aslam, 56, told AFP: “I have disowned her, I have severed all ties with her and I don’t want her to have any share in whatever meager assets I have until she is cleared of the controversy and pledges not to visit India again.” Aslam said he did not support his daughter’s showbiz career and said he hoped the authorities would punish his daughter if found guilty of posing nude: “so that no other woman would think of doing such thing.”

There are several points that are worth noting here. First, it is incredibly tragic that Ms. Malik is losing her family over something as petty as a photo shoot. I don’t have kids, but if I did I’d like to think that nothing short of brutal murder could move me to disown them. Second, I’m pretty sure that she makes more money than her dad, so threatening to cut her off financially doesn’t really have a lot of teeth, but cool story, bro. Third, how seriously messed up are this guy’s priorities that he thinks that massive suppression of popular elections, voter fraud, human rights abuses, and an international reputation for terror and suppression are less of a humiliation to Pakistan and Islam than pictures of a naked lady?

But the fourth and perhaps most important consideration of this excerpt is the final sentence. This isn’t just about his shame and hatred of his own daughter – this is about his shame and hatred of all women. This isn’t just a story of a rebellious youth, flouting the strict regulations of her overly-conservative parents – this is the patriarchy showing up in force to ‘punish’ a women for posing nude, and not-to-subtly threatening all others who would dare to step outside and breathe free air. What should have been, and was probably intended to be, a provocative and daring statement of modernity and a push to make women more visible has instead become the story of a woman shamed and cowed into what seems like a pretty obvious lie by the very same forces she was protesting against.

Sometimes censorship is disturbing. Sometimes it is overblown and counter-productive. Sometimes it’s just fuckin’ weird. In this story, it’s all three.

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