Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Begum Nawazish Ali: The Drag Queen of Pakistan?

In the Music/Gender class, we were discussing masculinity this week, and I was able to introduce Begum Nawazish Ali, apparently the most popular Pakistani talk show host who hosts this show called Late Night Show with Begum Nawazish Ali. Begum Nawazish's real name is Ali Saleem, is a male (and man), but 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 I think there's much more to it than just entertainment and fun -- and anyone would think this. There are thousands of videos of hers on Youtube, including Interviews and, as of recent, a report of his (Ali Saleem's) imprisonment after he abused his mother.

I prefer to refer to Begum Nawazish in the feminine all throughout this post because I'm interested in her femininity. I refer to her in the masculine only when talking about Ali Saleem, not the character. I avoid referring to her as a dragqueen, which is what her act will be interpreted as in the U.S., because I don't know how dragqueening and dragkinging works in Pakistan--yet. Oh, and 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, another popular talk show.

Pakistani talk show host Begum Nawazish Ali perfectly manifests the idea of hyperfemininity. 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 is something much deeper going on here. Entertainment has 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, the most popular talk show in Pakistan, 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. It also strengthens the assumption that femininity can be, or is, learned, whereas masculinity is ascribed. 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, excerpts from her show, that I showed my class as well. 


  1. Great post. I do think that just like in many cultures, Pakistani society has a history (in terms of S. Asian history with nautanki, hijras, and so forth) of there being a niche for effeminate males to take on the role of entertainer, and especially in drag. Effeminate gay men are acceptable when they make us laugh, it seems. Very interesting points you bring up about Begum Nawaazish's role in defining femininity by essentializing it.

  2. Thank you so much for your comment, jaan! Yeah, I, too, think they're acceptable only when they make us laugh! I didn't mention it in this post, but I have seen in some of her interviews, she talks about how she has invited leaders of conservative religious parties, and they themselves have declined to come appear on the show as guests but have said that they enjoy watching her show instead. And, heck, she flirts even with the religious leaders she invites :p Good Goddd! lol.

  3. I came to know about her when she participated in an Indian show "Big Boss" (Indian version of Big brother)

  4. Oh yeah? Yeah, I've watched a couple of episodes of Big Boss on Youtube. I most enjoy Begum Nawazish's "intro" for the Big Boss ;) She couldn't get more seductive than that, now, could she! lol.

  5. I've seen bits of her in her talk show for a few years now. I think she is an amazing piece of work. Very witty, not just a drag making money but a drag with charisma, personality, and one heck of a brain.

  6. Oh, Hinaaa! I love how you called her a "piece of work" ;) I agree! She's truly an amazing piece of work! I find myself addicted to her now. It's the charms ... and the personality ... and brain!

  7. I used to be a fan of "begum nawazish Ali" until I saw the National geographic documentary called, "Don't tell my mother I am in Pakistan." Looks like Ali Saleem and Also his brother Ali Salman (who I believe is a better anchor than Ali Saleem) are very charismatic you can't deny that but they tend to get too much into the whole gay rights issue. I don't understand what these people are thinking when they discuss things such as gay rights issue in Pakistan? Don't we have enough problems already? But anyways, I like her as an artist but not him as Ali Saleem.


Dare to opine :)

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