Life's a drag act for the TV presenter challenging homophobia in Pakistan
Arifa Akbar meets the unlikely celebrity forcing an intolerant society to confront its prejudices
Monday 23 November 2009
A finely groomed woman in a sparkling turquoise sari sashays through the doors of Asia House to rapturous applause. Her sari twinkles under the glare of TV cameras and a queenly smile breaks through heavy face-powder. She bows to the audience of British Asians and Pakistani embassy dignitaries, then looks Wajid Shamsul Hassan, the high commissioner, squarely in the eye. "I'm so sorry I'm late, my dears, but this," she says, casting her hand over her face and outfit, "took two hours. The pressures of being a woman: men expect so much from us."
Some of the audience titters. This impeccably dressed guest, was introduced as Begum Nawazish Ali, the stately widow of an army colonel, and he is Pakistani's first television transvestite. Begum, otherwise known as Ali Saleem, is a 30-year-old television presenter who has made a name for himself as Pakistan's first open bisexual, a highly transgressive act in a country where overt homosexuality is banned under sharia law.
His show has become a flagship series for Aaj channel, and he has gained an unlikely fan-club of Pakistani politicians, film stars and army dignitaries in Pakistan who tune in or turn up as guests to his Dame Edna Everage-style chat show every week.
The show is not meant to be a comedy act, Saleem says, although his act in London is peppered with risqué jokes. "I'm the only queen Pakistan really has; there is no competition. My heart is just like the army, open to all men between the ages of 18 and 65. The Taj Mahal is man's greatest erection for a woman."
What he has always aimed to do, however subtly, is to challenge the prejudices in Pakistani society. On entering the room in London, where he is making his first visit as part of the Pakistan Now festival, ending next month, he turns on the high commissioner to berate him on the deplorable state of Pakistan's women's rights. "If you look at our history, it's the women who have shown all the courage," he says. "It's high time we gave some more attention to our women. They are 51 per cent of the population. I consider myself a lucky Begum but I'm talking about the girls whose schools are burnt down."
Saleem, whose show was first aired in 2005, is planning to take the act a stage further. The series will be filmed live from this autumn and include topics that have, until now, been considered taboo. He has also created another "female" character called Rengeli, more "flamboyant and tarty", who will host a game show. "What's happening in Pakistan is that society is becoming more polarised," he says. "There's one set of people inclined towards a hardline vision and another reacting to this madness by having raves on the beach and popping pills. I want to help people develop tolerance. We have revamped the entire show and it is now going to be more thematic and address issues of sexuality, Pakistani hunks, legalising alcohol and having pubs and bars."
Cross-dressing is rarely condoned in Islamic society, and Saleem's act, filled with camp, smutty double entendres, would normally draw the censure of TV executives, mullahs and politicians. Growing up in a privileged Pakistani household (his father was an army officer) he became inspired by female figureheads such as Benazir Bhutto, Margaret Thatcher and the classic Bollywood singer and actress, Noor Jahan. He says: "I grew up in a military environment under Zia al Huq's regime which had a deeply conservative, madrassa culture which I think is pseudo-Islamic culture.
"I was nine when I became a fan of Benazir Bhutto and her liberal consciousness. All my teachers were wives of army officers and I loved dressing up. Every time my mother left the house, I would dress up in her clothes. When she found out I was doing this, she'd scold me. I did a lot of role-playing. When I was a little older, she took me to a psychiatrist and told him I was attracted to other men. He told her I was perfectly normal, and explained that there's a physical gender and an emotional gender. Emotionally, I had always felt as if I was a woman."
Saleem's family accepted his sexuality, and he began doing skits at his school, Cadet College Hasan Abdal (considered the Eton of Pakistan) dressed as Benazir Bhutto, which amused teachers and pupils. Initially, friends discouraged him from taking a drag act to producers. "Some of my friends called up and said, 'Are you mad? People will not let you out of the house'. But the exact opposite happened. Some of the most fundu [fundamental] people have come up to me and said I am doing a fantastic job."
But at first the show was met with suspicion from President Pervez Musharaff's military commanders, because they feared references to the Begum's fictional husband as an army colonel might be a slight on the country's military regime. After the fourth programme, death threats were sent. "It was already very popular by then," Saleem says. "I got a call from the channel's HQ to say we were showing an army colonel's wife to be flirting with men, and that we might be suggesting army officer wives are flirtatious. I got a call from military intelligence who invited me for tea. I thought they'd put me behind bars but instead, they had a proper tea laid out, with all the treats, and the colonel gave me his phone number and told me to ring him if I had any trouble. He said, 'Just be patriotic and keep Pakistan in your mind'."
He said his show has drawn an immense response from the country's closet homosexuals as well as the popular masses. "I get a lot of calls from young people who are gay and who can't tell their family. It's difficult for them. I believe if you are honest, you are better off in the long run. It's best not to live your life in denial. Pakistan has a big gay scene, but the idea is you do what you want to do but you just don't publicise it. I think Pakistan is a hypocritical society in that respect, because there is so much fear."
Saleem was in a homosexual relationship for three years, but now he has a girlfriend. He believes his bisexuality does not go against his Islamic beliefs. "Islam is compatible with homosexuality," he says. "I have had talks with scholars. I believe our sexuality is formed in our early years. We should not be penalised for what we do not control. The version of Islam, especially by the Taliban, is one that clashes with true Islamic ideology. Islam does not ask us to impose our beliefs on anyone else; it does not ask women to wear burqas. This is a concocted version of Islam which I don't regard as Islam. As far as I'm concerned, I have read the Koran, and Islam is the most liberating, most human of religions."
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