Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Begum Nawazish Ali: the Dragqueen of Pakistan?

Begum Nawazish Ali is apparently the most popular Pakistani talk show host, hosting the Late Night Show with Begum Nawazish Ali. Begum Nawazish's real name is Ali Saleem and is actually a male (and man), but she enjoys performing femininity by playing the role of Begum Nawazish Ali, a Pakistani middle-aged widow of a colonel. She claims she is just doing it for entertainment, but, really, entertainment is never just entertainment; something as reflective as Begum Nawazih's show is usually a commentary on the society, politics, culture, religion, and all other related things.

I prefer to refer to Begum Nawazish in the feminine because I'm interested in her femininity. I refer to her in the masculine only when talking about Ali Saleem, not the character. I also choose not to ascribe to her the status of a draqueen, although this is what her act will be interpreted as in the U.S. cultures, because I don't know how dragqueening and dragkinging works in Pakistan--yet. At the end of this post, I also share two Youtube videos of hers, one an excerpt from her show and the other an Introduction (teaser, really!) to her appearance on Big Boss, a popular Indian talk show.

Pakistani talk show host Begum Nawazish Ali perfectly manifests a concept known as hyperfemininity, a term referring to "extreme femininity." As a male and a man, hyperfeminine Begum Nawazish can perform femininity however she understands it, however she wishes other women with Begum Nawazish's character's privileges should perform it, whenever she enjoys, and with whomever she wishes--without fearing judgment, because, after all, "Begum Nawazish" doesn't really exist. Yet, at a time when Pakistan is suffering from extreme conservatism, Begum Nawazish's example raises several challenging questions about gender and sexuality in the Pakistani society. She states in her interviews that she intends merely to have fun and to entertain her audience as well as the guests on her talk show, but she is performing gender and expressing female and male sexuality in addition to doing other things that imply that there her role is really much deeper than mere entertainment. Entertainment has, after all, often been used as an effective vehicle to mobilize ideas, dispel assumptions, and offer solutions to problems, among other things.

The Begum Nawazish Late Night Show is therefore not “merely” entertainment: it is also the purveyor of essential messages to the Pakistani society. That it is a male performing femininity may contribute to the belief that men are given much more freedom in the society than are women; thus, a female may not be as easily respected and accepted to serve as a man talk show host, for example, as Begum Nawazish is (although proving this claim would require witnessing a female hostess playing the role of a male host and observing the viewers' reactions).

Moreover, Begum Nawazish flirts with her male guests, makes very seductive introductions to her show as well as to an Indian show called Big Boss on which she will be featured as a guest, wears make-up and dresses up in beautiful saaris, makes sexual innuendos and asks her guests about their intimate lives, and walks and acts like the Pakistani woman in a saari is seen and expected to do. Despite her challenging the idea that only women can be feminine and that Pakistan may not be welcoming to the idea of one's playing around with gender roles, she performs femininity only temporarily, only for this show and not outside of it, and does not embody it. On this show, also, she plays the role of a middle-aged widow of an army colonel, and she often narrates fictional anecdotes of her life with her husband. She once tells her audience, for example, about her honeymoon to Paris. 

Begum Nawazish’s performance may also be interpreted as a man’s way of showing women how to be feminine or what femininity is. She is a Pakistani woman, a widow, but she displays deep confidence, wit, boldness—and glamour. She is opinionated, unafraid to issue opinions on current affairs, national and international politics, and social issues. She transcends many if not all boundaries in the Pakistani society. But if she is teaching women how to be women enough, she is also sending the message that a woman may not be as confident as her without the beautiful looks, the flawless make-up, the stunning saaris, the great hair-do. Once a woman has all of these, it may not be as difficult for her to embody the confidence that that Begum Nawazish does. Or is it that, like dragqueens, she is hypersexualized and hyperfemininzed and therefore doesn't represent the "ordinary" woman? How would she define masculinity, and would she hypermasculinize herself if she were dragkinging? It is also interesting that Begum Nawazish chose not to perform masculinity on her show. How different would her reception have been had she chosen to “entertain” her audience with feminine activities (e.g., make-up, saaris) while acting masculine? And how would the society respond to a female performing masculinity while hosting a show, or does, like much of the American society, the Pakistani society, too, assumes that masculinity comes naturally and cannot be learned? Could Begum Nawzish's performance show that the society does not expect or believe that a man, or even a woman, can be feminine without the grace, beauty, looks, attitude, and act of Begum Nawazish’s character? 

To illustrate the above, I'm sharing two of her videos below, both excerpts from her show. And for a stronger academic discussion on Begum Nawazish, her performance, and the the politics of entertainment, please click: Begum Nawazish Ali: Frivolous Entertainment or Playing the Political? 

Qrratugai is an Islamic Studies student with emphasis on gender relations in Islamic law. She tweets at twitter.com/qrratugai and blogs at http://orbala.blogspot.com

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