Sunday, 22 January 2012

Meme se Maya: The Bigger, Dirtier Picture behind the "chapa" episode

“azadi ka mutlub yay naheen hain kay aap dateain marain”  
                                                                                                                      -One of Maya’s co-hosts


By now, the video of morning show host Maya Khan harassing couples at the Bagh-e-Ibn-Qasim has been floating around the internet, accompanied by a petition against Maya and her intrusive and unprofessional methods. 

Blogger Mehreen Kasana wrote a very pointed and enjoyable to read Open letter to Maya Khan. This post is partially a caveat to that letter. This is not a blog post highlighting all that was wrong with the show, because that’s been done to great effect in said letter.

Maya's show basically expressed concern with 'indecent' sexual activity 
and public displays of affection at parks . Think park benches. Making out. Gettin handy. Oral sex. And think all the attendant demands of shame and modesty,  so that explicit  mention of these 'acts' and 'sins' was circumvented.

The reality is that for a very large number of Pakistanis, witnessing a couple, married or not, just about making out (and then some) on a park bench is an eye-sore and reason enough to assume bud-qirdaari.  It’s a sight a lot of the public is not comfortable with, unless it enters their life on silver screen and celluloid, in which case it is ravenously devoured behind locked doors and hand-cupped eyes.  We’re a country that gets gratification out of Sheila’s jawaani and moral release from Munni’s budnaami.  Sometimes, traces of the latter are found in the corner most seats of our country’s seedier cinemas.

I bring up making out because that’s precisely what the video was afraid to explicate but insinuated in its respectable silence.  In fact, ‘making out’ seems like a misnomer here because it reflects the ease and familiarity of a worldview where making out is just that: minimally, a harmless activity and at most, foreplay. I should say kissing wissing.  Kissing gets moral. Kissing gets sinful. Kissing gets “sesky.”  Pakistan’s preoccupation with seski-ness may seem innocuous at first, but the word seems an appropriate choice to talk about what this 17-1-2012 episode of Maya Khan’s morning show Subah Saverey Maya Kay Sath makes an attempt to talk about. Let it be known to ALL that we don’t have sex or sexuality in Pakistan. We have sesk. We can never quite come to grips with the X. 

Maya Khan’s “chapa” episode sees a dozen or so women participating in a pseudo-awareness program decrying the many perils of park courtship. And benches. BEWARE the benches!

It’s a lesson in assisted Izzut. That the cameramen are indeed men makes it really conducive to some good old fashioned confessional girl talk.  Let’s shoot a moral load whilst the boys watch why don’t we! 

No hard evidence of “lewd” activity is established of course. After all, hysteria has never demanded substantiation. It is contingent instead, upon imagination, and in a culture where all manner of discourse on sex, sexuality and pre-marital relationships is severely taboo, it is no surprise that this imagination has already seen things unseen. Heard things, unheard of.  Made moral decisions. And profiled the bad boys and girls from the good ones.  It is, in fact, in response to a request by some “good” girls that Maya decided to host this investigative foray into park-land to begin with. The good girls feared that the uniform-to-home clothes swapping bad girls are giving them a bad name and soiling their collective honor. I am no one to dismiss their fears but it is clear to me that the entire episode’s interrogative mission is fuelled by action upon a sense of shared moral proxy.  Word of mouth, hearsay, rumor and a certain sexual superstition, if I may call it that, play a role in (mis)informing this mission. One mother even came up with a recycling campaign style 3M manifesto: Meem se “Ma, Media, Mobile”, she said. I’m surprised she forgot "Murd."

The episode, around an hour’s worth of televised moral meem-say ma/media/mobile/murd panic, features urban dwelling women’s almost folklorist narratives of the occurrences in parks. My estimate is that the women participating in the field-trip are aged between 18 and 55 years of age.

Rumour or not,  the ideas expressed in the video are significant because they seem to come from some unlit, dirty, dingy corner of truth- something Maya was aspiring to tap into and failed miserably at.  I’m arguing in the vein of Nancy Scheper Hue’s study on the globalization of organ-theft rumours here and I think there’s an uncanny relevance and rewarding applicability to this present situation:  “Most Anthropologists who have encountered these rumors in one form or another will suggest that the stories are, like the Scriptures, at the very least metaphorically true, operating my means of symbolic substitutions.”  I can’t possibly think any amount of rational debate will necessarily dissuade the women from believing in hearsay and other unverifiable second-hand accounts of misconduct in public spaces like parks and malls. The metaphor holds true and exerts very real power. A lot of us live by metaphor, not Human Rights Watch fact sheets. The “symbolic substitution” works thus: all the women seem to have a very palpable sense of a moral crime, without knowledge of the culprit. There is crime without culprit; they are courting transgression without convicting any real transgressor. And surely, if there’s a crime or violation- real or perceived- there MUST be a culprit, there must be victims and, above all, there must be a court. If the authorities don’t care, which the group alleged they did not, WE must.  This calls to mind Veena Malik earnestly asking Mufti Sahib “Aap kawn hotay hain adalut luganay walay?” during her now-famous interview. If the same question were to be hurled Maya’s way, I reckon she’d respond: Hum Meem-say-Media walay hotay hain. 

Unfortunately for the couples and the audience, Maya’s “expose” of social concern descends into reductive, sensationalist moralizing on the consequences of doing things behind your parents back, bunking college, not caring for your bahayn’s izzut, sitting too close to a na-mahram on a park bench and other grave social vices.  Somewhere in there, park centered prostitution raises its Trojan horse burqa-clad head. 

Is the security of prostitutes addressed? No.  Their welfare? No. Abortion? No.  Safe sex practices? Of course not. Violence/rape/abuse. Nope. HIV AIDs? Never; that’s so gay! 

I was talking about moral release and Munni earlier. As can only be expected, there was a certain hush and giggle of excitement amongst the women. They were enjoying this sascapade. There was a sense of self-righteous, morally sanctioned masti and tafreeh in the whole thing. Wise cracks were had, verdicts on the various couples passed and the whole thing played out like an extended field trip with treasure hunt upon arrival. 

Tafreeh reminds me, the nature of morality policing depicted in the episode, seems almost masturbatory in that it served a safety valve function. It reestablishes existing virgin-whore binaries.  It does for our country’s arbiters of honour, decency and morality what good old porn does for the consumer. Enter morality porn.  Or more appropriately, moreporn.  I can just feel it in all the giggles and frowning speculations abound in the video.  The ladies are hot and bothered. This particular safety valve happens to be safer because they’re not confronting the more privileged boys and girls of Butlers Café:  Think Veena Jee and “soft targets.”
                                       . If you read my article yesterday, this video would have been accessible. It has, since then, been taken off YouTube. I thought Maya and Samaa had nothing to hide? 

After their breathless pursuit of the first two couples (five in all), Maya martials her forces for some down time with further anecdotal exchanges.
I could conveniently say she was making a big deal out of nothing, but the trouble is that there is a moral problem here- both in the watch dog style sexual surveillance brought to bear upon those unsuspecting couples (ala Zia-ul-Haq), and also in the pursuit of transgression without transgressors, and the process of substitution that took place, where the former replaced the latter.  

There is a situation, whether it exists in perception or reality: the dirty, taboo details occupy a place all their own in the nether regions of many Pakistanis’ minds and mouths. Those bad words. Bad parts. The PTA banned word list. Ullu chudai. Jesus. Bumblefuck and flatulence. Period! 

What this episode demonstrates to me is that if there isn’t necessarily a religious agenda here, there is certainly a moral imagination at work. This video is perversely precious in that it captures this imagination in all its frenzied excitement. I found it interesting how the interviewee Dad, that pillar of families-ONLY, Sunday outing moral rectitude, expressed his knowledge of the inexpressible.  That contradiction is at the heart of Pakistan’s wider preoccupation with secrecy, seskyiness and kissing kay scene.  

Maya is essentially telling us- shit goes on at these parks- shit so bad I can’t really tell you. But you must know, nonetheless. You must know what you cannot be told. She and the rest of her quasi-expose brigade is locked in a loop, compelled to action by conscience (and higher ratings perhaps?) and ultimately arrested by shame.  They, on the one hand, wish to shine a light on the so-called “shameless”, and at the same time must circumscribe their coverage out of shame itself.  They are shaming authorities and ashamed subjects all at once. That’s an exercise in futility. It’s not contributing to any healthy dialogue on what can be done to make parks more permissible spots for families and couples alike. As I understand it, that is a legitimate concern for the stakeholders concerned, even if it is one I do not personally share. I just don’t see a morning show host as a relevant one in this case at all. Municipal councils world over clamp down on any untoward behaviour in public park spaces (from cruising for sex to drug use and procurement/prostitution).  Not this way, though. This is very bad, almost delinquent behaviour. This is bullying, harassment and humour at others’ expense. The concerns here may be legitimate but the methods deployed by Maya and team are absolutely unacceptable. They constitute the same breach of (public) trust that she claims these young men and women are guilty of when they meet behind their elders’ backs.  Their intergenerational trust deficit is not really her mind, nor is it of the couples’ own making. Her own violation of media ethics and trust, however, is within her professional control.  As a morning show host, she’s supposed to be reaching OUT to people, not arbitrarily running a sight-and-shame campaign and becoming an arbiter of decency and marital goodness on her own arguably skewed terms. Maya embodies Pakistan’s biggest trouble- she’s clever, cunning and cheeky. But not intelligent. Never intelligent. 

No one’s winning here, least of all a woman in an anchoring position in the media. The couples’ secrecy may prove enabling for them in terms of averting the moral gaze and worse, of elders (I would know, I’m gay and living in a country where homo= invisible=convenient=I get around=still feel very suppressed), but Maya’s silence is certainly not empowering her as a woman in a male-dominated mass media. 

She may have invaded the public space that is the park and breached its gates in all her “risqué expose” glory, but she is unable to breach the moral gate-keeping taking place.  She is unable to climb over the gate, let alone unlock it.  What she is able to do, however, is conveniently peep through the keyhole, not as moderator, but as voyeur.  

The gossip mongering moral sisterhood at work in the video is interesting, too. A few of the women are covered themselves, but are so quick to take part in the unveiling of fellow sister(s). So pray tell me, where is the sisterhood? Where are the established informal networks of trust and confidence that in many instances, can empower women and safeguard them? I know them to exist, but the presence of a male tv crew and an attacking gang of women, ruin any chance of meaningful engagement. If Maya wanted to give some friendly advice on the merits of protecting your honour and not bunking classes, she could have done so on her own terms, behind the scenes, free of the gaze of the penetrative camera and thousands of na-mahram in the audience. That is after all, a moral/religious concern for her isn’t it?

Mehreen Kasana talked about privacy in her letter, and the idea of letting people be. I get where she’s coming from, but I think she’s too quick in assuming that Anglo-American standards of “personal space” and “respect for privacy” are operative, and even necessarily desired, here. In context of the televised sermon that this was, I couldn’t agree more with her, though: Maya was invading privacy and encroaching upon personal space. 

 Where I think it’s not quite that simple, is in statements like this: “They’ll ask for help when they ask you.”  Not quite. Different cultures negotiate personal space differently. “I let them be unless and until they ask for help (my emphasis).”  By and large, Pakistan is not a DIY, self-help culture, so that translates into letting a lot of women and a lot of youth just BE. As it is, many women in Pakistan are brought up to never ask for help but only to listen, lower their gaze and respond.  With regards to sexuality, it’s all the more Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. I felt Kasana’s Open Letter  dealt with the idea of privacy uncritically. 

If every woman in this country minded her own business, then the entire institution of arranged marriage, easily condemned but seldom appreciated as an enabling convenience in women’s lives, would collapse. Informal support networks, where they do exist, would collapse. A ‘bahayn’ offering advice, sans tv crew, wouldn’t necessarily be dismissed as an intrusion. In societies as homosocial as ours, there are tacit bonds at work: girls get girls. Women get women. They ask. They intuit. And they offer each other the kind of therapeutic support that is not the subject of a morning show. Sometimes these support systems have been known to take the shape of increasingly popular female-only durs gatherings, in the style of Farhat Hashmi, for instance. The whole mind your own business thing works both ways. Free counselling and advice can also empower women and connect them to a wider feminine experience and narrative in a male-dominated society and can make them feel like they’re not alone. Not all of the advice and guidance dispensed from elders and/or cultural authorities is deemed invasive- some of it, is indeed welcome. Privacy and personal space are cultural variants, not universal postulates readily applicable everywhere and anywhere. 

Which makes Maya’s program all the more pathetic, because she violated that gendered trust by not respecting her sisters’ wishes to remain unseen and lying to them about conducting a survey on mobile theft and street crime. She forced entry, cameraMAN included, in a space where alternatively, she may have been welcomed had her tone not been as interrogative and judgemental. In doing so, she alienated the very girls/women she set out to “save”.
Saving reminds me, one caller, and several other commenters,  suggested the girls' faces be pixellated out of regard for their privacy and safety.  An understandable suggestion, but I can't help but think that pixellating couples engaged in harmless activity, instead of diffusing the situation, only concentrates the taboo.  The censored versions of Veena's FHM cover made her look like she was bare-chested all together. It overwrote her own titillating self-censorship- she cupped her breasts and got tactical with her legs. Regardless of whether the cover was genuine or fake, censored Veena equals naked Veena equals na-zayba Veena. Veena was irrevocably nuded the moment local television channels ran the blurry version of the cover:  nuded in person and in the national pscyhe. Pakistani audiences at large, including the Mufti Sahibs and Maya Khans respond to the blurry, and the pixellated. An act as harmless (and SAFE) as buying condoms and lubricant at the local market here can get blurry, inviting evasive glances and other suspicions regarding marital status.  Maya and many of the women in this "chapa" bring a pixellated lens to bear upon the amoral and the indecent.   Pixellation can mutate even the most innocuous imagery into porn. Look, I've tried it here, and you can try it too:


Solution: If there was a problem, perceived or real as the case may be, and if Maya "date buster" Khan wished to address it publicly, she could have done so in a studio capacity, as moderator of a civil discussion that brought together different stakeholders, including CONSENTING launday and laundiaan, parents, municipal authorities and social scientists/activists. She could have even petitioned against the park authorities concerned and lobbied for better maintenance. This would have yielded better results than stalking couples.

The verdict: Nuteeja yay nikla kay…Munni budnaam hui. Maya jaisoon ke liye.

Maya Khan (left) stars in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Brought to you by the House Un-Islamic/Pakistani Committee.  

Post Script: 


just learnt that Maya Khan's team removed her date-buster videos. This just keeps on getting better by the minute. Ironic given that it was Maya who insisted the evasive couples should not fear her lens had they nothing to hide. Yet here Samaa goes, imposing self-censorship on a cause Maya, not too long ago, deemed noble and for the greater good of honour and decency. I bet if Maya and team were asked why the videos were brought down, they'd say they did it for the jawaans and their safety. Too little, too late, don't you think! The obvious reason the videos were removed was damage control and saving face. Given that personalities like Maya and networks like Samaa pride themselves on being stalwarts of a free and fair press, I think this exercise in censorship only harms them further and undermines all and any semblance of credibility.
The network, alongside Maya and her team can't even take ownership of the program and accept responsibility for their so called freedoms. Who's hiding now, Maya? Who's covering up? Who's seeking recourse to the purdah your expose sought to unveil? Shame.


Organ Stealing: Fact, Fantasy, Conspiracy, or Urban Legend?

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 94720


  1. dude you really need to reconsider this layout. i can't read anything in here.

  2. hey, sorry for the trouble. I've been considering a lay out change myself. Wanna let a little light in. Might un-tile the image and shift it to the side alone. I've changed the background colour of the text for now. is this more legible?

  3. This is better but a there's always room for a little more cleaning up ;)