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 Sep 26, 2017 12:46pm

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.

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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.

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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 blog@dawn.com