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Self-censorship in post-Zia Pakistan

by Quddus Mirza, 26 September 2009

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Himal South Asian, September 2009

Zia’s long reach

The Pakistani state no longer forces the country’s artists to comply with stringent political or moral diktats – but it doesn’t have to.

“We live in a postmodern age, everything is simulation, everything is reference, even dictatorships.” –-Dubravka Ugresic

A young man writes a love letter to his fiancé, and adds a line or two about the government of his country. He posts the letter, but soon after dispatching he realises that if it is opened in the censor office, he is going to suffer because of the casual negative remark he made. In order to avoid such consequences, he decides to apply for a job in the censor department, so he can try to get hold of his letter. To his surprise, he does indeed get a position, and thus starts learning his new tasks. Several months later, during the course of normal post-checking, he finally comes across his letter. He opens it and reads the content. But instead of hiding it or throwing it away, he writes a note that the sender of the letter has committed a crime against the state and must be punished.

This short story by Luisa Valenzuela, the Argentine author, illustrates how the system of censorship seeps into the very souls of those it affects. The ultimate grip and success of censorship occurs when it becomes part of one’s internal system; and, like termites, it corrodes the insides, till one day it destroys the body it has occupied. Subsequently, censorship becomes the normal, natural state, such that one is no longer aware of its presence, as one’s thoughts, words, art and acts are perpetually filtered through a new sense of carefulness.

Pakistani society has faced multiple forms of censorship during its short period as a nation-state. In fact, censorship has been a constant characteristic and tool of successive Pakistani regimes. But during the second last military rule, from 1977 to 1988, this became a particularly prominent presence. The regime of that time, headed by Zia ul-Haq, was known for monopolising religion and manipulating ethics in order to justify its existence. As such, censorship, the control over information and knowledge, was considered an essential weapon in order to maintain order and keep power.

Floral patterns

It is important to recall how an autocratic regime such as Zia’s related to matters of morality. After all, the censorship during Zia’s period was primarily focused on moral issues –the representation of human figures, particularly of women, and the depiction of nude bodies, both male and female. This emphasis on morality – or, alternatively, on sexuality – was hardly surprising, given that the regime sought legitimacy in Islam, and common belief was subsequently used as a stick with which to curb ‘immoral’ behaviour and expression. Hence, religion was interpreted in such a way that, for an ordinary citizen, faith was reduced to decrees relating to the representation of the female body, for which state-enforced conditions were in effect for the female presence in print media, film, theatre, television (which at that time was only the state-run channel) and in the visual arts. Indeed, there seemed to grow something of an official obsession with the female body, or at least with certain parts of it. If during a television play, for instance, a woman was depicted as drowning, it was essential that she must be shown in dry clothes the moment she was rescued and emerged from the water. Similarly, if a girl was sleeping on a bed, she needed to have a properly folded dupatta on her chest at all times.

That kind of fascination (in the guise of prohibition) manifested in another form for the print media. Film advertisements illustrating the exposed parts of legs, arms, the navel or some cleavage would be officially covered with cross-hatched black-pen lines – often resulting in some interesting floral patterns, clearly the outcome of whatever bored individual was tasked with checking and censoring all the newspapers and magazines. Likewise, cinema was censored in such a manner that, in foreign movies, two mouths coming close to each other to kiss would suddenly begin to drift away, since the film censor board had clipped the shots of the actual kiss in the movies but provided enough time for the audience to guess at the lost presence of a kiss.

These policies led to some perverse solutions. For instance, movies were made about the ‘purity of love’ between a brother and sister, yet the song sequences and other movements betrayed the clear undercurrent of romantic and even amorous passion. Similarly, during the heyday of overt censorship, a few theatres specialised in showing specifically the censored portions of foreign films. This became such a normal practice that, in a single week in the early 1980s, two cinemas in Lahore were running the same movie (Naked Fist) but in two different versions – the censored portions in one and the uncensored parts in the other.

For the visual arts, the practice of censorship spread to unprecedented levels. It was not possible to display female nudes in public spaces, so artists relied on private galleries or simply showed in their studios or homes. Yet even this was considered offensive, and when the Karachi-born Colin David exhibited nude paintings at his house in Lahore in 1990, members of the student wing of a religious political party invaded the event and destroyed several works. In another notable incident, in 1984, Iqbal Hussain was not allowed to exhibit his canvases, depicting the prostitutes of Lahore , at Alhamra, the state-run gallery; in protest, he put his paintings on the roadside near the Alhamra Art Gallery .

The other component of state censorship was, of course, connected to political matters. During the late 1970s, after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had been hanged and his Pakistan People’s Party and other political groupings had been banned, any reference to political issues – in the arts, literature, theatre or media – was considered a criminal offence. Thus, paintings that were suspected of having references to Bhutto’s hanging or political executions in general were labelled objectionable and disallowed from public showings. Likewise, the politically minded works of A R Nagori, Ijaz ul Hassan and Salima Hashmi were banned from state-sponsored exhibitions, because these addressed issues such as military dictatorship, political oppression, religious fundamentalism and suppression of women; problems that were present in the society, but were not often mentioned in the media or on public forums. For example, Nagori made reference to the alliance between the mullahs and the military in his painting “Junkies 2” (1985), and portrayed army oppression in his “Tamgha” (medal) from the same period. Likewise, Hashmi’s work “In Spite of Wrath, 2” (1987), which depicted faceless females, indicated the situation of women in the country. Both of these were officially censored.

The earliest incident of censoring visual art in Pakistan , however, was probably the rejection of Hassan’s painting titled “ My Lai ”, on the well-known Vietnam War massacre, from the national exhibition held in 1971 during the reign of another military dictator, General Yahya Khan. Ostensibly, the painting was not permitted in the exhibition because it was feared that the US government could be offended. In reaction, all of the other artists scheduled to take part in the exhibition threatened to withdraw their own works, thus forcing the authorities to allow “ My Lai ” in the show. Likewise, the paintings of Hashmi and Jamila Masood were refused entry in the national exhibition of 1981, on the reasoning that the former’s work had ‘political content’, while the latter’s canvas had a face resembling that of the recently executed Bhutto.

Habitual editing

This kind of censorship ended in August 1988, as Zia’s regime crashed along with his Hercules aircraft. But today, his policies have two lasting, visible impacts on the art and culture of Pakistan . First, they have generated the creation of a small number of private galleries (initially one in Lahore, two in Karachi and one in Islamabad), because some artists were unable to exhibit their works in state-run venues. (A similar phenomenon was witnessed in theatre, as a parallel theatre scene flourished in private spaces.) If on the one hand these were venues for artists who could not be shown in state-controlled spaces, these and other private galleries (established later) also encouraged a sense of commercialism in Pakistani art. Hence, freedom of expression and freedom of the market evolved side by side.

As Zia’s regime continued for 11 years, several groups of artists tried to protest the state policies. The last generation of politically conscious and active artists has included Jamal Shah and Akram Dost Baloch, who, along with a number of others, expressed their anger against atrocities through images of tortured individuals and contorted, often naked figures. Interestingly, these artists and those of the subsequent generation (such as Jamil Baloch and Rashid Rana) did not have to face serious problems of censorship or refusal to show their works. From the mid-1990s, after all, art had acquired a particular status – as precious items that could be collected, which also bestowed a power that proved stronger than the state intervention. Due to the rising price of works of art, the activity of art is today perceived as an important practice in the elitist world. Paradoxically, this limitation has provided a freedom from censorship, much like the serving of alcohol and watching banned movies are possible at Pakistan ’s high-class parties. This new-found liberty has reduced art into an exclusive pursuit, however, often removing it from the public arena and interest.

Yet one can conclude that the long decade of Zia’s regime, which manipulated the concepts of morality and politics, ultimately has had a devastating effect on art in Pakistan which impacts to this day. The state no longer imposes strict rules regarding political subjects, nor is it particularly harsh on issues of morality; but many artists have imbibed the habit of self-censorship. Before putting their works to the test of official censorship, they start to scrutinise and edit their own content, imagery and intention. Hence, many artists begin their creative process with an already deep-set notion that nudes or overtly political themes might not be allowed for display, or that these could cause public anger and state wrath. Indeed, these ideas are embedded so strongly in the minds of today’s artists in Pakistan that the state’s reaction of tolerating ‘immoral’ subjects or politically motivated works at times comes as something of a surprise – rather than being seen as part and parcel to the creative person’s freedom of expression.

Similar to the story by Valenzuela referred to at the beginning, self-censorship in post-Zia Pakistan has captured the imagination and psyche of too many artists. Today, the state in Pakistan no longer demands that artists follow strict orders – the artists are already habitually complying with the spirit that would be behind such orders.