Nargis Fakhri and the Tale of Two Print Mediums

Recently #NargisFakhri was trending on Pakistan’s social media for an unlikely reason. Turns out a visual from the Fakhri’s recent Mobilink campaign was ‘unsuitably’ placed on the front page of various Pakistani Urdu newspapers. (Possibly by the same genius marketing wizards who frequently place giant public billboards of women wearing halter tops and spaghetti straps in locations where one would likely never see women without their chadors and dupattas, often leading to adverse public reactions). The incident generate a controversy strong enough for Fakhri to publicly put out an  an official statement condoning the placement of the visual in an Urdu daily as a ‘shocking’ and  a ‘culturally inappropriate’ placement.  Seemingly ‘the nation’s collective conscience was rattled’ and as an observer put it ‘There were many other rattling stories that day, however the image of Nargis Fakhri lying down holding a mobile phone on the front page of Urdu newspapers was definitely far more nerve wrecking than the rest of the newspaper and the stories put together’.

While it comes as a pleasant surprise that Fakhri is well versed with the cultural values of the Urdu language press, the furor caused on the social media is hardly surprising. From time to time the hegemonic ‘high culture’ narratives of the Pakistani social elite, who control the visual and entertainment  media,  collide with those who represent a vast majority of non- Westernized, somewhat culturally and socially conservative Pakistanis.

This episode has not only brought to the fore, the convoluted politics of the Urdu press, but also highlighted the very extreme discrepancy between what is ‘appropriate’ and ‘acceptable’ in the English and Urdu press. In terms of their content and their out looks, the English and Urdu language press in Pakistan could well be seen as belonging to two different planets. While visuals like Fakhri’s ad are termed as obscene and vulgar by followers of the Urdu press, similar visuals in the English press are not only deemed acceptable but are also framed in a language that places them as being normative and aspirational . As many others have also noted, Fakhri was wearing more clothes than some of the models and fashionistas are publicly seen wearing on the social and fashion pages of the English language publications. Some of these examples, shown here for the sake of analysis and not moralizing.

Images courtesy Karachista ,”Sadaf Kanwal was dressed like a winner in a teal gown which hugged her figure in all the right places!”

Images courtesy – Good Times, ‘its all about the short hemlines!”…This one is a top must-have.”

Given this disparity it only seems relevant to dissect the two extreme world views belonging to the English and Urdu media to understand how and why this dystopian void exists between the two worlds. In terms of outreach in the print media, the newspapers that publish in Urdu are said to have a broader reach than the English-language papers. In a population of 140 million the Urdu newspapers have a combined circulation of  10 million copies. The circulation of Pakistan’s entire English-language press is said to be 150,000 in a population one hundred times that size and in this regards the English press caters to a very selective audience.

The English speaking press in Pakistan is said to have somewhat essentialized the non-English speaking sections as the ‘passive’ and ‘uncultured’ other and has manifestly upheld the worldview of the lifestyle liberals (Zehra 2012; Rahman 2006; Asdar Ali 2004; Ghazali 1994).  On the other hand the Urdu language press has long perpetuated the orthodox viewpoints that resonate with political Islam. In this way the Urdu language print media facilitates the narratives of the political Islam which encourage an emotional, intolerant and angry view of the world in which the ‘enemies of Islam’ are ‘waging a war on Islam’ and Pakistan.[1] In this sense it empowers and becomes the voice of the religious elite.  The Urdu language print media is therefore seen as being a ‘pro-establishment’ and ‘right wing’ phenomenon, which incessantly propagates ‘religious nationalism’ and ‘conspiracy theories’. (Husain 2012; Rahman 2006; Patel 2011)

Inspite of the fact that most people in Pakistan  effectively articulate themselves in Urdu, Urdu has inadvertently come to be seen as a sign of ‘backwardness’ and ‘associated with political Islam’ in complex multi-dimensional ways (Rahman 2006).  Well-known liberal intellectuals  have publicly derided the language and gone as far to say that ‘Urdu is intrinsically not a progressive language, whereas English is’[1/a]  Historically Urdu was seen as ‘the linchpin of the two-nation theory’ and ‘a cornerstone of Pakistani nationalism’ so much so that unconditional allegiance to the Urdu language almost became ‘an article of faith’ and ‘an intrinsic part of the Pakistani Muslim, as opposed to a secular and Westernized, identity’.[2] Possibly because of the religious right’s support of Urdu since the very time of the inception of Pakistan, the ‘English speaking elite’ have been ‘resistant’ to and ‘opposed Urdu’, considering it to be ‘the language of their opposition’, namely the radical Islamists.[3]

In complex and contradictory ways therefore, Urdu plays a very contested political role in Pakistan where in linguistic terms the society is divided along ideological and class lines, so that Urdu is also part of the vertical (socio-economic class) conflict in the country where ‘the ‘elites with wealth and power have access to  English medium schooling and the masses are educated either in Urdu or not at all’.[4] Urdu-medium schools and colleges are said to cater mostly to the lower-middle and middle classes and facilitate right wing political and cultural views, while English caters mostly to the upper-middle and upper classes with liberal political and cultural views. While the English mediums schooling is considered to impart ‘liberal views’ such as encouraging tolerance for religious minorities and sensitivity towards women’s issues, it also manifestly  ‘alienates students from their culture and makes them look down upon their compatriots who are not as Westernized as themselves.’[5]  The English language is also seen as ‘a status symbol’ and ‘a class-identity marker’ and consequently Urdu has come to be seen as subordinate to the interests of the English speaking urban elite. Urdu becomes ‘a liability’ which hinders one from ‘rising in the society’ (Hasan 2002; Rahman 2005). The attribution of ‘a lower status’ to Urdu and even local languages, ‘militates against linguistic and cultural diversity, weakens the “have-nots” even further and encourages poverty by concentrating the economic power in the hands of the English-speaking elite’[6]. Interestingly however this linguistic disparity also informs debates and creates disparity even within the religious circles. Even within religious organizations like Al-Huda, the English medium and Urdu medium divisions, lead to important divergences over specific tactics and strategies and are a source of constant tension between the two groups who inspite of sharing the same religious ideology have ‘significantly different outlooks on life’.[7]

Given the nature of the  discussion taking place presently within the ‘Islamic civil society’, for whom Urdu is manifestly the medium of articulation, the general public discourse in Urdu overtly disparages secular values, the neo-imperialism of the West and the Westernized elite in Pakistan, encourages and demands the suppression of women in the society and seeks to inhibit many forms of social creativity, such as in the arts and media.[8]  In some ways ‘the English medium versus the Urdu medium’ debate has come to be framed around the contestation of religion between the ‘life style liberals’ and the ‘Islamic civil society’ in the public sphere. Furthermore there is also a manifest  contestation between the two worldviews over the very notion of secularism. The ‘Islamic civil society’ describes the secularists in Pakistan as being ‘stubborn in the face of failure’ and ‘carrying on the tradition of slavery of the British Raj while not knowing the first thing about the tradition of secularism in the West’[9] and assert that the ‘Pakistani secularists simply learn random phrases written in the West by rote and hurl them at ordinary Pakistanis without knowing what they mean’.[10] In this perspective secularism has a very ‘Western’ and ‘imperial’ context. Conversely opinions in the English speaking press suggest that ‘secularism should be embraced, but should not be perceived as a threat to religious values’ and that a secular system of governance is not ‘a hindrance to Islamic faith but an assurance that individuals can practice their religion freely’.[11] The equation of secularism with atheism in Pakistan further constrains the possibility of any meaningful debate between the two groups.

Until recently the English and Urdu discourse has been taking place in two seemingly different spheres with very limited interaction and acknowledgement between both segments (Rahman 2006; 2005). Recently however these entrenched lines have blurred and the English-Urdu dichotomy seems to have somewhat dissipated because of the increased visibility of Urdu in the public sphere through the bourgeoning television culture , through debates in the media which create a middle space by encouraging a dialogue between the two factions. 

The media seems to have rapidly energized the Pakistani society’s ‘transformative ability’ and in this regard the scope and scale of the electronic media’s reach has been specially exceptional.

[1] Eickleman, Dale F and Salvatore, Armando. The Public Sphere and Muslim Identities.2009

[1] Ahmed, Khaled. Pakistan: The State in Crisis. Vanguard. 2002.

[2] Nasr, Vali. The Vanguard of the Islamic revolution :the Jamaʻat-i Islami of Pakistan. 1994. p 18

[3] Rahman, Tariq. ‘Urdu as an Islamic Language’. Annual of Urdu Studies Journal. No.21. 2006

[4] Rahman ,Tariq. Denizens of Alien Worlds A Study of Education, Inequality and Polarization in Pakistan. Oxford University Press. 2005

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7]Ahmad,  Sadaf Transforming Faith. Syracuse University Press, 2009 . pg 85-86

[8] Overview of the Urdu press.,,

[9] Jan, Orya Maqbool . The Daily Jang. May 2, 2012.

[10] Rashid, Haroon.  Daily Express. March 15, 2012

[11] Hamid, Mohsin. Confronting Hypocrisy – The Need for Secularism in Pakistan. Dawn. 2011. also Talat, Faraz. Can Secularism Help Pakistan. Express Tribune. September 13 ,2011


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