Let's Talk About: Begum Nawazish Ali
Ali Saleem, or better known by his alter-ego Begum Nawazish Ali, is a popular Pakistani TV host and actor. While trying to shape his career in the Pakistani media industry as an impressionist, Ali realised that that alone wouldn’t be enough – thus Begum Nawazish Ali was born. In a country that still shies away from publicly talking about topics such as sexuality and gender identity, she is breaking every taboo in the book simply by being on air.
Dressed in drag, Late Night with Begum Nawazish Ali was a popular talk shown running during the 2000s, featuring prominent Pakistani celebrities and politicians alike. As Begum Nawazish Ali, there was an interesting contradiction in her ability to be candid about who she is and openly flirt with her male guests – without incurring the backlash from the more fundamentalist aspects in Pakistani society. Ali has openly said to identify very strongly with his persona as Begum Nawazish and has also noted his privilege in being able to talk about topics such as sex and sexuality in a space that is often not afforded to other female-identifying people.
“I am a man and I am a woman. It is two gender extremes, and I am constantly trying to balance it” – New York Times, 2007
Despite whatever controversies it may have stirred up, the show was a success and was given a prime-time slot on TV. The show still airs reruns every Saturday night, and it's episodes available on YouTube, racking up thousands of views. With male guests she’s full of suggestive banter and sexual innuendo, with female guests she teases and bonds over makeup looks. But do not be fooled by her fabulous appearance, her questions are piercing and has no qualms about asking the deep political questions and fishing for the gossip that many other hosts might squirm away from.
However, despite how progressive this is, this is not to deny the deep discrimination and lack of opportunities that many gender non-conforming people face in Pakistan. There is also the argument that Begum Nawazish is still able to shed her sari roam as a man, with many people simply interpreting her as a gag-character – a luxury that many others are not afforded. But South Asia has a much more complicated relationship with sexuality and gender-identity as a whole. While in recent years, Pakistan in particular may be much more influenced by religion, being a 96% Muslim majority population, a lot of its attitudes may be much more attributed to leftover imposed western colonial binary ideas of gender and sexuality. So, one step in a more progressive direction is definitely something to celebrate because it means there’s so much potential to create safe and inclusive space for all gender identities and sexualities.
So where is she now? Well, Begum Nawazish graces the Pakistan TV screens every once in a while, with Ali Saleem appearing as ‘himself’ much more often in recent years. However, Ali has been swept up in many more controversies and legal issues in regard to property disputes and other alleged illegal activity, so it is still to be seen when Begum Nawazish will make a comeback.
Note: Pronouns she/her and he/him are being used interchangeably based on Ali Saleem’s seemingly fluid gender expression.