Mahira Khan owes Pakistan nothing beyond her work as an artist

Actresses are expected to live up to standards of objectification, while not upsetting lofty expectations of piety.
Updated 26 Sep, 2017

The Pakistani Twitter-verse lit up with a series of blurry pictures of actress Mahira Khan taking a break outside in New York City accompanied by a Bollywood actor.

Formally Pakistan’s sweetheart, our very own Khirad from Humsafar, Mahira must have been dumbfounded to find herself on the receiving end of abuse, character assassination, slut shaming and downright asinine comments.

She must have been flabbergasted to find herself so hated for simply standing at a roadside doing, what she must have thought, was nothing unusual.

Mahira was smoking a cigarette on the streets of New York City, an act that so many Pakistani men do every day without any fuss or becoming a national meme.

But the standards we set for women are different and we shouldn't be surprised at the reactions since criticising women is a national hobby of sorts.

It was the perfect storm of patriarchy and masculine jingoism, where Mahira was held to public court for failing to guard the izaat of an entire nation due to the hemline of her dress and the cigarette in her hand.

It set off a ridiculous chain of events where reasonable people were forced to defend smoking, basic privacy and women’s agency in the most unnuanced of terms.

Related: Ayesha Gulalai is paying the price for decrying harassment publicly

The argument that Mahira is a public figure and thus 'fair game' does not hold ground because being a celebrity does not make her private life public nor her body public property.

Furthermore, reporting on Mahira’s personal life does not serve any public good; in fact we’re worse off as a society if we subject women’s lives and choices to this level of scrutiny.

Actresses in Pakistan are expected to live up to standards of objectification and beauty, while at the same time not upsetting lofty expectations of piety.

It would be disingenuous to equate the nature of her publicness to a politician’s; we cannot hold her to the same scrutiny as someone who’s elected to public office. Regardless, even the details of what and when a politician smokes are not relevant to any meaningful public discourse.

Mahira, an actress whose work is the public part of her life, should not be patronised about what she does with her life, her cigarette or her lungs. She doesn’t owe us anything beyond her work.

The only public good to come out of this incident is exposing the hypocrisy and rampant sexism that pervades our minds and digital spaces – but we knew that regardless.

The toxicity of celebrity culture is well known abroad, and Pakistan is not impervious to these trends. However, it takes on a particularly pernicious shape when combined with the self-righteousness of and unrealistic expectations that we have of our female artists.

Mahira is probably as aware of these dangerous notions of purity as any one, having played characters that embody these problematic female stereotypes.

The hope is that Mahira will now push for better on-screen representations of women, beyond the pious characters that she has also routinely played
The hope is that Mahira will now push for better on-screen representations of women, beyond the pious characters that she has also routinely played

None of Mahira’s characters, consumed by an audience of thousands on primetime television, would have attempted to assert their personal choice to deviate from acceptable norms.

Her characters have repeatedly reinforced notions of women as timid and compliant, routinely typecast in opposition to modern, independent and ultimately 'impious' women.

This is not to berate Mahira, especially when she’s facing such ire and it is partly a reflection of the limited roles available to actresses in the industry, but we hope that it will serve as a catalyst for her to push for better representation of women and female characters within the industry through her work.

Read next: Chain Aye Na promotes violence against women and domestic abuse. It sets Pakistani cinema back a decade

The Mahira Khan incident points towards the fact that women's right to, and expectation of, privacy in the age of the internet combined with a culture of instant and over-sharing is becoming increasingly less secure. What should Mahira’s expectation of privacy be when she enters a public space, such as a street?

For women – and more so for female celebrities – the expectation that they would not be photographed without their consent, watched or followed, is diluted as they are leered at from the moment they step outside their homes.

In this digital age, public figures give up parts of their privacy to either stay connected or relevant, but this has consequences — Photo courtesy Mahira Khan's Instagram
In this digital age, public figures give up parts of their privacy to either stay connected or relevant, but this has consequences — Photo courtesy Mahira Khan's Instagram

Women – and again, more so female celebrities – abdicate a lot more freedoms when they enter public spaces than men and the attention that women get is often unwelcome and impacts their mobility, access and enjoyment of public.

This is further complicated by the hyper-connectedness that marks our contemporary lives. With the ubiquity of mobile phone cameras, it becomes very easy to invade personal spaces and subject those around us to surveillance with ease.

Celebrity culture in the digital age is also complicated given that like the rest of us, well known public figures also give up parts of their privacy to either stay connected or relevant, or both. The nature of celebrity is rapidly changing, and personal lives of artists are often used to further their brands.

This fact is often weaponised to argue that everything is kosher: if a female celebrity puts up pictures of herself online then she is inviting the public into her private life. This obsession with women’s bodies is not simply fodder for social media gossip; it has real consequences for most women.

Qandeel Baloch is a case in point where a woman's right to privacy was snatched from her and her ID card and passport were thought to be for public consumption just because she chose to share videos of herself online.

Explore: In conversation with my Dupatta

Women and female celebrities will never be modest enough because the moral standards of our society aren’t satiated unless the women who occupy private and public spaces aren’t completely compliant. The justifications for these unattainable standards are as numerous as they are preposterous.

Women and female celebrities will never be modest enough because the moral standards of our society aren’t satiated unless the women who occupy private and public spaces aren’t completely compliant.

One of the authors of this article has been given a vague justification for wearing a dupatta over even the most modest of clothing: “it is worn to respect the elders who you’re sitting with”.

Just like the respect of the family lies in the dupatta of a woman, the national reputation resides in the white dress that a celebrity like Mahira adorns when she's outside the country and meeting Indian men. The battle ground remains our bodies.

If anything, it’s the country's patriarchal mindset, one that we have been conditioned to for generations, that berates and objectifies a woman if her dupatta slips ever so slightly, if her bra strap peeks through her neckline, or if a Pakistani woman lights up a cigarette halfway across the world in a dress.

Are you a woman who smokes and are subjected to societal double-standards? Share your experiences with us at


Khaled Sep 26, 2017 01:41pm
A good write up.
M. Emad Sep 26, 2017 01:43pm
Pakistani beautiful actress Mahira Khan an excellent match for the handsome Bollywood actor-producer Ranbir Kapoor.
Sodomite Sep 26, 2017 02:00pm
Leave her alone to do her thing. MK is a doll and we wish her well.
ALbert Sep 26, 2017 03:03pm
A person's character is his/her biggest asset!
Surma Bhopali Sep 26, 2017 03:08pm
Only literacy could solve this problem!
Najeeb Sep 26, 2017 03:09pm
Very disappointed with her - seems actors can go to any limit to get fame, money etc.
pink Sep 26, 2017 03:44pm
brilliant article. it breaks my heart when i see a Pakistani woman judge another Pakistani woman for living her life. mahira khan did nothing to deserve this treatment. she has made pakistanis proud all over the world! peoples disgusting and judgmental comments have made me so sad and angry. love you mahira..stay strong! cant wait for your next movie. will buy 10 tickets!
nida Sep 26, 2017 05:42pm
This thing has risen to such a level that Mr Talat hussain did a whole program on the TV and the lady in the program answered everybody very well.
habib Sep 26, 2017 06:41pm
I m ur big fan so good luch and God bless you in your future mahira
Ali Sep 26, 2017 07:25pm
She has no responsibility! She has no responsibility except her work, that she is not representing Pakistan in her travel abroad or that she is expected to be a role model for young Pakistani women is minimized in this article. She can pollute her lungs because that they are her lungs and that will not affect the perception of other Pakistani women is irresponsible in itself. It is a shame that this newspaper provides an opportunity for people to pen such ideas.
Rehan Sep 26, 2017 07:38pm
Ok . She is only being an human and woman. Why she acts to pretend that she is above in morality than other actresses and dancers?
M Mirza Sep 26, 2017 07:54pm
And pakistan owes nothing to her. She is a star , she should know that her public life will always be of interest for her fans.
Omair Sep 26, 2017 09:08pm
Great article. You have hit the nail on the head. People have way too different standards for men and women. And more over we are more than happy to criticize someones character instead of looking within ourselves. I guess this shameful attitude helps us to increase low self esteem. If someone is smoking and wearing a dress they like meet people of any faith or nationality, what the hell is wrong with that! We have much much bigger problems to deal with. But I guess people love to humiliate other people.
Syed Sep 26, 2017 11:55pm
She knows it really well, whenever you rise to fame, these things will happen for sure, even if she was not wearing a revealing dress or smoking a cigarette, she would have been photoshopped byaug anyone for the sake of gaining attention and defaming her, that`s how life works, it has nothing to do being her a women, Nouman Ali Khan is recently caught up in the act, Maulana Tariq Jameel has various things against him, Junaid Jamshed cried and made an apolegetic video to the whole nation, she can wear a burqa and get harassed, its our society that is sharing and circulating these news and enjoying defaming others, this was the sole purpose of creating facebook, people are interested in others lives and like to make comments on it rather than focusing on their own. Good luck to Mahira for her career ! but she has totally destroyed her personal life in building her acting career, she`s lost a lot and gained very less and finite as actresses are forgoten soon in this industry.
Zunaira Sep 27, 2017 12:12am
Zunaira Sep 27, 2017 12:14am
It is difficult to get fame but even more difficult to maintain that fame in a noble way
Changez Khan Sep 27, 2017 12:40am
Mahira Khan is NOT pretty, her acting is so so ... why is she so much popular?
Abdulhaque Shaikh Sep 27, 2017 02:00am
Yes Mahira Khan Owes nothing to Pakistan. But She owes every thing to her parents, her family, her children. Her family will support her outwardly. But inside their heart, they will bleed because they used to culture of Pakistan and nothing wrong with living as Muslim in Pakistan
Mohsin masood Sep 27, 2017 02:25am
Beautifully done. Thank you for challenging male chauvinism and patriarchy in Pakistan. Mahira is a fine actor and has the right to spend her time with and befriend whoever she wants to.
Just asking Sep 27, 2017 04:18am
Let her live a life. If you like the girl she plays on screen then enjoy the representation and leave it there. Personal privacy is important. She is not antisocial or anti national.
Akil Akhtar Sep 27, 2017 04:49am
Don't care if she smokes or not but the statement she owes nothing to Pakistan is a reflection of our lack of any sense of belonging and faithfulness to the country that gave us everything....
N abidi Sep 27, 2017 06:23am
Mahira khan is our family's favorite actress! It is a negative mind set that needs to change! Mahira is symbol of confident , girl/woman. We love her for tremendous talent, admire her for her grace and beauty,and respect her , for living her life ,her way! Mahira strong !
Vijay B. Sep 27, 2017 06:45am
Mahira Khan is a grown woman in her own right. She is not your daughter, sister, wife, or mother that she has to comply with your likes and dislikes or abide by your standards of right and wrong. You can choose not to like her and can express your disdain of her or her actions by boycotting her movies/shows. That is definitely your personal privilege but that is as far as it goes. Beyond that, Mahira Khan can smoke whatever she chooses to smoke, wherever she chooses to smoke it , with whoever she choose to smoke with and dressed in whatever dress suits her fancy.
Vijay B. Sep 27, 2017 06:47am
Rab ne banaa di jodi?
Vijay B. Sep 27, 2017 06:54am
I think Pakistanis are more incensed to see THEIR Mahira Khan cavorting with an Indian male actor in an informal way with a backless western dress. Now if it had been a Pakistani male actor with any of the leading female Indian actresses under exactly the same setting, would the outrage have been the same on either side of the border? Keep wondering until it happens.
balanced view Sep 27, 2017 07:24am
My dear Ms. liberal Kamran, Can you please tell me if she owes anything to anybody except herself? Does an individual owe anything to anyone at all? How about family, society, culture? Or is it only I, me, mine and myself, as in the Western cultures?
Vasan Sep 27, 2017 07:32am
I like her style. She should act more movies in Bollywood!
Khan USA Sep 27, 2017 07:52am
She is no different than Meera and Veena Malik ! She will do anything to get another Bollywood movie !
haqq Sep 27, 2017 07:54am
Its so funny when the writer says 'all pakistanis', like he/she speaks for us aswell. Get your head out of it. This is not the case for all. Probably many are not concerned about it but then again the writer has to mention it because it feels like the only way validating the point.
FM Sep 27, 2017 08:45am
Such a rubbish and poor article and again trying to blame and highlight the gender equality. Nothing to do with smoking and having a usual time on road side. She became an icon and loved by the same people.
nasr Sep 27, 2017 09:03am
Mahira I wish you could have lived up to be that real person who you acted in Hamsafar.
Muhammad Fayyaz vakani Sep 27, 2017 09:11am
Female freedom is fine, but, I think one should remain aware of a celebrity status, especially if you are with an Indian.
Manam Ajiz Sep 27, 2017 09:32am
@Ali Thankyou for the lone sane voice. I still don't get the title. In these line, I think, no one owes to Pakistan. In fact, no one of any country owes anything to his/her country. It has blurred my notions of obligation / patriotism or attachment to my country or soil. So can the writer explain is there something one owe's to his country?
Asim Sep 27, 2017 09:38am
Its her right to live the life the way she want. If you like her acting you enjoy her performance. If she is not a good actresses you just dont see. But no one should be allowed to comment on her personl life.
GEUST Sep 27, 2017 09:53am
faseehullah Sep 27, 2017 09:59am
People copy movie stars. They copy their fashion, style and ans many other things. Every Tv/film star knows this that fact very well.....and life of a celebrity is not completely private; they by themselves share their private life on social media like "going on a vacation" etc.......What If a bad act of the celebrity is shown on social media? they suddenly think that their privacy is hacked by intruders? huh We can't say that a bad is not bad because a women is doing it? I guess not
Raheel Sep 27, 2017 10:42am
It amazes me to see the public talk about celebrities as though they are their family members . I guess credit goes to their acting skills if they have earned that place in our minds . However our obsession is not their problem . Every one commenting here has not achieved anything in show biz but has a lecture on modesty . She is not in a normal industry and in her profession her circle of interaction nothing she has done is out of line . She is not a daughter or a sister or a potential bride she is just an actor and a mature adult living life as she chooses . The holier than thou obsession if this nation must be end.
Sky Sep 27, 2017 10:53am
Some have envisioned her as cultural brand ambassador of Pak and would have been taken aback when they saw what they did, especially with an Indian celebrity.
AA Sep 27, 2017 11:03am
@Ali Well said!!!
SIAK Sep 27, 2017 11:16am
"Actresses are expected to live up to standards of objectification....." you nailed is definitely about objectification of women, in particular, and of everyone else, in general (Men wearing tight shirts and trousers, sleeveless shirts showing off their arms, in lowcut vests showing off their chiseled bodies) in showbiz.. I mean one should be honest to say that showbiz is also about objectification a lot, actually. If an artist is ok objectifying herself/himself for her own personal reasons, then it is perfectly nobody's business. But the problem comes when while doing it the artists starts to champion a 'cause'. That is when the artist becomes justifiably open to criticism and scrutiny of character....
Vijay B. Sep 27, 2017 12:00pm
To my Pakistani friends : Don't forget guys we gave you Sania Mirza. Ab hum Sania Mirza ke badle mein Mahira Khan maang rahe hain. You guys do believe in the courtesy of return gifts, don't you? All in good fun, HAGD.
iqbal carrim Sep 27, 2017 12:47pm
Khirad of Humsafar is in harmony with the culture of a country. All civilised cultures have red lines and to cross them in the name of privacy or under any pretext is to disown one's own roots.
harris Sep 27, 2017 01:02pm
Unfortunately, no Pakistani owes anything to Pakistan.... They all are around only to make enough money till we all emigrate.... No doubt our cultural hypocrisies were inherited being in South Asia, don't know why Pakistan gets the blame...
Ali Sep 27, 2017 01:30pm
You might have some knowledge of the world of female gender in the context of western culture, but what about the meaning of 'Aurat' #stereotypes
ali Sep 27, 2017 02:07pm
This is ridiculous. Why should Mahira's smoking bother anyone? Its not good for health but that's her problem not ours. Some women actually look attractive smoking on a side note
Timna Komal Kamran Sep 27, 2017 02:54pm
Excellent artical , and Exactly she got her own life as well ! for us she is still the brilliant actress who has been recently praised by another country also. We got bunch of hypocrates here who don’t see themselves.
Marium Sep 27, 2017 02:54pm
@Rehan please give examples of how she has acted better than everybody else?
Timna Komal Kamran Sep 27, 2017 02:55pm
She is the complete package of beauty with brains .
Sidney Sridhar Sep 28, 2017 01:45am
Mahira Khan is a classy actress and owes nothing to anyone . She is entitled to live her life, her way!
iztraab Sep 28, 2017 02:34am
She looked trash thats what make people made. i am pretty sure, people would not have such a strong reactions if same pictures were taken in some decent restaurant.
iztraab Sep 28, 2017 02:36am
People are mad because of her hypocrisy on and off the screen. why does not she wear same clothes in Pakistan?
Ali Raza Kazmi Sep 28, 2017 10:22am
i believe once you become a public figure ..expectations sore high as people start following your moves anf your actions and the fans start tuinking what you are doing is the right thing. celebs shpuld realize how many lives they are touching and their wrong actions may give their followers wrong paths too the success they are enjoying at the moment.
Haider Khan Sep 28, 2017 10:43am
@Ali Thank you brother. At-least there are some people left who have the capacity to think. Agree with you 100%
m ishaq Sep 29, 2017 07:02am
how much obsessed we are with the life of celebrities ..,and our selective justice is another wonder...what would be your respected views if sighted fawad khan with katrina kaif or ali zafar with katrina in the same token...
Irfan up huq Sep 30, 2017 09:09am
@Vijay B. KEEP wondering!!
chenab Sep 30, 2017 08:39pm
Excellent article. The unfairness of judging a female celebrity in such harsh terms is deplorable indeed. Two young people hanging out with each other of course becomes of interest only because they are famous and nationals of countries that share the most ambivalent of relationships. The fact that 100 percent of the venom and vitriol is directed towards the female in this context is a distressing confirmation of the unfortunate but pervasive patriarchal mindset that legitimizes such gall.