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Over the course of the years since its independence from the British empire in 1947, Pakistan has tried to establish itself as a Muslim state that borders in between a liberal one and a more conservative Islamic country. The attempt at trying to find the right balance to accommodate the opposing viewpoints have led to some clashes, including the buzz of Maya Khan, a Pakistani morning talk show host who has taken it upon herself to chase down unmarried couples in local parks and publicizing their actions on a local TV channel. A relationship before marriage is largely frowned upon and is deemed immoral in the Islamic point of view.
Mehreen Kasana, an American/Pakistani student and a TEDxKinnaird speaker based in Lahore was outraged by Maya Khan’s action. Even though this incident happened a few months ago, Mehreen Kasana, a member of the younger generation of Pakistan has spoken out and stood up as part of the more liberal side of Pakistan by writing an open letter to Maya Khan.
Toonari Post (TP): What was your main reason behind writing the letter? Why did you feel compelled to even write one?
Mehreen Kasana (MK): I’ll put it bluntly: I had seen way too much of intrusion by media into personal lives on TV, newspapers and social media outlets, and I thought it’s about time I did my part even if it meant like jotting down a simple, open letter to one of these people who should display regard for ethics and privacy.
TP: Did you expect the the letter to go viral?
MK: No. I never knew a serious, slightly angry letter would garner so much attention. I guess I hit a nerve somewhere. I’m glad it did.
TP: Do you feel that your views might be influenced by the fact that you were born and raised in the USA?
MK: Yes and no. While there is considerable respect for personal space and privacy in the US where I was raised, there are ample instances of the same in Pakistan and other places in the subcontinent but, like I’ve said before, that regard is unfortunately rejected by a certain type of self-righteous moral police that believe that the sole purpose of their existence is to dictate what is perfect conduct according to them.
In this dictation they completely forget that the religion (Islam in this case) they’re using as an excuse to carry out this invasion of privacy, is the same religion that places emphasis on hiding the flaws of others, leaving private affairs between said person and Allah only. I think this problem is one of the consequences of conflating culture with religion. In the cultures of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, there are some men and women who believe that the ‘goodness’ of their character is determined by their ability to cleanse society of its ‘evil.’ Imagine if such a figure is given a microphone, camera and their very own morning talk show. Things can get messy.
TP: What is your personal view on unmarried couples hanging out in such public places?
MK: If you want my take on simple, unmarried couples taking walks in public parks or eating vanilla ice cream, it’s simple: Please let them be. One of the driving concerns of Maya Khan’s interrogation of the couple was that, according to her, perhaps they were indulging in sex trafficking. I understand that because it has happened in family parks and, yes, this is detrimental to the safety of the people (including children) in those parks but you can seek the help of law for that. Public vigilantism is not the way to go about it.
TP: Do you think that Pakistan is ready for more strictly imposed Islamic laws as they have in Saudi Arabia, whereby unmarried couples can be caught and fined?
MK: That’s enforcing Islamic law on everyone – including minorities that don’t follow these restrictions basically because they’re not Muslims to begin with. That’s wrong. In my opinion, no one should be penalized merely due to a theocratic state’s set of laws. It’s an infringement on their autonomy – something that is un-Islamic. While there are people in Pakistan who would happily endorse such a punishment, there are also a considerable number of people – including Muslims like yours truly – who oppose it.
TP: What do your friends and family think of the open letter? How has the public response been?
MK: I’ve received immense support and positive criticism after I wrote the letter along with some angry trolling too. It opened ways for dialogue concerning Islam, societal ethics, the obvious deteriorating state of professional journalism in Pakistan and a lot more. My mother laughed while reading the letter because she knew it took a lot for me to contain my disdain for invasive media. My father has been my pillar despite our difference of opinion on religion, culture, politics, etc. He also supported the letter.
Unlike many Pakistani fathers, he refuses to give in to the public outcry that is, “Your daughter has brought shame to your family by having a male friend!” We’re from a very traditional family of landlords. The idea of a liberated, outspoken daughter is dangerous because the orthodox concept of ‘honor’ clashes with progressive, moderate followers of Islam – what we happen to be. There were some threats from the fans of Maya Khan. Someone said they’ll “show up at my college” and “teach me a lesson.” I waited for the lesson. It never came.
TP: If there is one thing you could say to Maya Khan, what would it be?
MK: Bearing no grudges against you, I am certain that you’ve realized you made a mistake by chasing those couples but I hope that, now that you’ve started another show, you’ll rise above your error and become someone worth admiring in terms of media ethics. Channel that energy for a good, legitimate cause.
For more of Mehreen Kasana, visit her personal blog.