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Sania e Shoaib. Maledette religioni

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Sania Mirza and Shoaib Malik give India and Pakistan a new reason to squabble

When Sania Mirza and Shoaib Malik – an Indian tennis star and Pakistan’s cricket hero – fell in love, it offended Hindu sensibilities and bolstered Muslim pride


Indian tennis star Sania Mirza and Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik give a press conference at Mirza’ family home in Hyderabad Photograph: Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images

It was never going to be a low-profile affair. When the 23-year-old Indian tennis star Sania Mirza emerged from her Hyderabad home to announce that she was marrying Shoaib Malik, former Pakistan cricket captain, she must have done so with a degree of trepidation.
“I think we are getting married. We are not making any statement, politically,” she told the sceptical press pack. “I just want to know how I am going to look and how my hair is going to be, rather than think how India and Pakistan political issues are going to be.”
Given the febrile atmosphere that exists between the countries –which have fought three wars since partition in 1947 and have barely been on speaking terms since 10 gunmen from Pakistan unleashed three days of terror on Mumbai in 2008 – it was perhaps a forlorn hope. The story shot to the top of the news agenda and it did not take long for India’s voice of rightwing Hindu nationalism, Bal Thackeray, to drip poison all over the coming nuptials.
“Henceforth, Sania will not remain an Indian. Had her heart been Indian, it wouldn’t have beaten for a Pakistani. If she wished to play for India, she should have chosen an Indian life partner,” he wrote in an editorial.
There were demonstrations in India, and Mirza’s picture was burnt on the streets of Bhopal, where activists from the rightwing Hindu nationalist Vishwa Hindu Parishad party vowed to stop her competing at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi later in the year.
Yet on the other side of the border, the reaction was notably more enthusiastic. There was dancing in the street outside Malik’s house in his home town of Sialkot and the current Miss Pakistan, Ayesha Gilani, and the head of the Pakistan Cricket Board, Ijaz Butt, were trotted out to give the match their blessing.
“At least people can look up to them as a beacon of hope and peace for Pak-India relations,” said Gilani. Butt concurred: “I am sure it will have far-reaching effects and help improve relations between the two countries.” The former Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, suggested political differences between the countries could be resolved through a similarly “positive approach”.
The reactions offer an insight into the state of the relationship between the countries. At one extreme are the hardline politicians determined to play up differences for their own ends, while at the other are the ordinary citizens, who have much in common: “There is a little bit of Indian in every Pakistani and a little bit of Pakistani in every Indian,” as the late Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan, once observed – but can be easily whipped up when their old rival puts one over them.
And in a culture where male chauvinism is practically compulsory, that is precisely what has happened in the case of the Malik-Mirza marriage. The Pakistani boy is perceived to have won the Indian girl, and Indian male pride is hurt.
Amber Rahim Shamsi, blogging for the Pakistan newspaper Dawn, likened it to the positive response in India to Bollywood movies in which the male (Indian) lead charms his way into the affections of the (Pakistani) female lead. “I doubt if any if these films would have resonated with the Indian masses had the genders been reversed,” she wrote. “This also explains why the response on the Pakistani side has been so laudatory.”
For the couple, caught in the middle, the personal cost has been high. As the spotlight turned on them, the story began to spin out of control. It soon emerged that the 28-year-old Malik – currently banned from international cricket for a year for his conduct on a tour of Australia – was already married to a woman he claimed to have never met.
The young woman, Ayesha Siddiqui, had apparently sent him pictures of herself and they had talked on the phone. There were claims she then avoided meeting him because she had put on weight, and that they were eventually married over the phone. At first, Malik tried to wriggle out of it, but when Siddiqui’s family called in the police, he came clean and, after negotiations between the families, a divorce was agreed.
Mirza, once a national heroine after becoming the first Indian woman to break into the WTA top 40 (though she has since slipped back to 92), also found herself the subject of unfavourable comment as it was revealed she, too, had dumped her fiancé. A week after the news of the wedding broke, Cadbury Bournvita announced it was not renewing her sponsorship contract.
As she fell in love with Malik, it seems, India began to fall out of love with her.
“In India, cross-border marriages are a cultural shock given the political background of the two countries,” Dr Bhavna Barmi, a psychologist and marital therapist, explained in the Times of India. “India and Pakistan, for time immemorial, have been portrayed as two warring nations which has had a humongous impact on our psyche. So, such adverse reactions don’t really come as a surprise.”
Rashmee Roshan Lall, editor of the Sunday Times of India, said many Indian Hindus could not contemplate the idea of marrying a Pakistani Muslim.
“There are many reasons for this, not least the widely held, popular view that she is selling herself short by marrying so gauche (and now, dishonest) a man as Shoaib,” she said. “But the underlying sub-text was undoubtedly a sense that Sania is getting her just desserts. The whole affair illustrates a deeply held competitiveness between India and Pakistan.”
But Neeraj Bhushan, an Indo-Pak expert based in Delhi, felt the couple were simply being used as pawns in a bigger political game. “The Shoaib-Sania wedding is a very ordinary affair,” he said. “But it looks like the vested interests on both sides will keep looking for such ordinary events to keep the pot boiling, without realising that their actions and speeches are affecting the lives of two young and innocent persons adversely, maybe for a long time to come.”
Such marriages will remain unusual until politicians have the courage to drop their confrontational stance, he added. That mood of confrontation has been heightened since the Mumbai attacks, although there have been glimmers of hope recently.
Perhaps reluctant to allow time for anyone else to take offence, the couple brought forward the wedding – originally scheduled to take place in Hyderabad on 15 April, followed by a wedding party across the border in Lahore – to Friday, marrying at the conclusion of evening prayers. Significantly, they have no intention of settling in India or Pakistan.
“The decision of the couple to stay in Dubai instead of Pakistan speaks volumes about the societal and political scen
ario in Pakistan and the kind of ties New Delhi and Islamabad share,” said Smruti S. Pattanaik, a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in Delhi. Some fear the whole affair shows that the prospects for overcoming divisions have actually deteriorated in recent years.
When Reena Roy, a popular Indian actress, quit Bollywood at the height of her fame in 1983 to marry Pakistan cricketer Mohsin Khan, it caused nothing like the stir kicked up today. “The best part about our marriage was that I got a very warm acceptance in India and Reena received the same in Pakistan,” Khan explained earlier this week. “Times have changed, and sadly so.”


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