No, not Musharraf himself. The cross-dresser in question is Begum Nawazish Ali, aka Ali Saleem, pictured above. This New York Times article by Salman Masood, “When She Speaks, He’s Breaking All of Islam’s Taboos” (thanks to all who sent this in), illustrates the wildly diverging pressures within Pakistani society today, in which a man dressed as a woman can discuss taboo subjects, but an actual woman can’t; a rape law that is more recognizant of women’e rights is derided by clerics as un-Islamic; and only pressure from the President and the Supreme Court kept a province from enacting Sharia law.
Ali Saleem himself says: “I owe Begum Nawazish Ali’s existence, in a certain way, to General Musharraf.” Of course that is true — and his own popularity in urban areas bears witness to the fact that there is widespread support for Musharraf’s efforts to keep at least some of the most odiously oppressive political and social aspects of Islam at bay. And at the same time, Musharraf’s opponents can point to Ali Saleem as evidence of the decadence and corruption of the Western societal model Musharraf is attempting to import, at least in part, or to at least to allow for.
Dinesh D’Souza is coming out with a new book in which he apparently argues that the immorality of Western societies hands a weapon to jihadists that we do not need to hand them; I haven’t seen the book, so I don’t know how he states this thesis, but I have of course argued many times, and will continue to argue, that the immorality of the West is for jihadists at best a recruiting tool, and that the jihad arises from imperatives within Islamic teaching that would remain even if America were the most moral non-Muslim society on earth. But within Pakistan and among Muslims, it’s a different story: Ali Saleem is a symbol of immorality, and thus, if Pakistan were a Sharia state, his life would be forfeit. If Musharraf is ultimately driven from power, Ali Saleem would not only be taken off the air, but would probably be killed.
KARACHI, Pakistan, Jan. 2 “” Ali Saleem may have devised the perfect, if improbable, cover for breaking taboos in conservative, Muslim Pakistan.
The talk is of delicate issues, including sex. “Maybe, yes, I am a diva,” he says.
In a country where publicly talking about sex is strictly off limits, Mr. Saleem has managed not only to bring up the subject on his prime-time television talk show “” but to do so without stirring a backlash from fundamentalist Islamic clerics.
And he has done so as a woman.
When Mr. Saleem takes to the airwaves, he is Begum Nawazish Ali, a coquettish widow who interviews Pakistan’s glitterati and some of its top politicians.
A real woman could not possibly do what Mr. Saleem does. In the unlikely event a station would broadcast such a show, the hostess would be shunned. And taking on the guise of a married woman “” whose virtue is crucial to her whole family “” would be equally impossible.
But apparently a cross-dressing man pretending to be a widow is another matter entirely.
It is something of a mystery why a man who openly acknowledges he is bisexual is a sensation here. Traditional Islamic teaching rejects bisexuals and gays, and gay Pakistanis have few outlets for a social life. The gay party scenes in Lahore and Karachi are deep underground.
Mr. Saleem has his own theory for his popularity: he thinks Pakistan has always been more open than outsiders believed.
It is true that Pakistan is, in a sense, two countries. There is urban, and urbane, Pakistan, where Western mores are more accepted, although nudity would never be seen on television or scantily clad women on billboards. And then there is rural Pakistan, where Islam is generally practiced with more fervor.
It is also true that the Pakistani president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is relatively tolerant about what the media can show and cover, including politics. Although General Musharraf came to power in a bloodless coup by the military in 1999, he has been more open to political criticism in the press than some of his democratic predecessors.
Mr. Saleem, 28, is thrilled with his success for reasons that are both political (he is proud to be breaking ground in bringing up tough subjects) and profoundly personal. “My biggest high is to see myself gorgeous in the mirror” he said recently while reclining in a makeup-room chair. As a beautician outlined his eyes, adding glitter and eye shadow, he said, “Maybe, yes, I am a diva.”
It is hard to judge how successful Mr. Saleem’s show is “” there is no form of Nielsen ratings here. And there are clearly people who find the show revolting.
But by many measures, it is a success. Television critics have been generally supportive, and the show, which has been on a year and a half, has a prime-time slot despite its name, “Late Night Show With Begum Nawazish Ali.” Mr. Saleem said it was named for its racy content, usually shown late, but he said the network scheduled it earlier hoping for a hit that would bring in more advertising revenue.
Urbanites, meanwhile, seem not to be able to get enough of the once-a-week show, which is rerun twice each week. They have showered praise on Mr. Saleem’s portrayal of a middle-aged widow who, in glamorous saris and glittery diamonds, invites to her drawing room politicians, movie stars and rights advocates from Pakistan and India.
With fluttering eyelids and glossy lips, Begum Nawazish Ali (Begum means Lady or Mrs. in Urdu) flirts with male guests using suggestive banter and sexual innuendo. With female guests, she is something of a tease, challenging them about who looks better. Questions are pointed and piercing. Politics, democracy and saucy gossip are enmeshed in her conversation.
Mr. Saleem sees the show’s acceptance and commercial success as a testimony to the tolerance and moderation of Pakistan, a country often seen by the outside world as teetering on the edges of militancy and extremism.
Colorful and witty, Mr. Saleem is open about his own sexuality and sprinkles his conversation with gender-bending phrases. “My life fluctuates between two extremes,” he says. “I always say this: I am a man and I am a woman. It is two gender extremes, and I am constantly trying to balance it.”
He is unabashed at the criticism that his show often borders on raunchiness. “Sitting senators have sent requests to be on the show,” he says.
Mr. Saleem, who in the guise of Begum Nawazish Ali often gets away with questions to politicians that print journalists might be wary of, said his show would not have been a possibility earlier. “I owe Begum Nawazish Ali’s existence, in a certain way, to General Musharraf,” he said….