PESHAWAR, Pakistan — It was a typical night at the movies in this fundamentalist capital of Pakistan's North-West Frontier province.
Women in the street outside the Naz Cinema were covered head to foot in the traditional burkha . Most of the men were bearded and wore caps in the tradition of strict Islam. Almost everyone was observing Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting that has just ended.
As the feature film was about to begin, the call to evening prayers filled the air, with scores of muezzins chanting from minarets atop mosques throughout the city.
But in the theater, the mood was irreverent. The audience of 100 or so, mostly men, exploded when the screen lighted up with the Pushtun-language adventure film that had been advertised.
"We want the blue movie!" the crowd shouted. "We want the blue movie!"
Quickly, as has been the practice in virtually every major movie house in Peshawar, the projectionist switched to an Italian film featuring hard-core pornography.
This was of course blasphemous in Pakistan, which was created as an Islamic state when the Indian subcontinent was partitioned in 1947.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The video shops of Peshawar, traditionally Pakistan's most conservative city, where Western women have been attacked by mobs for venturing out with their arms uncovered, are filled with pornographic films. X-rated playing cards are available for 200 rupees a pack, about $10. Pornographic novels and comic books are bestsellers in the bazaars.
Vendors and consumers alike say this is all because democracy has finally come to Pakistan.
"Before Benazir, none of this stuff was available," a video merchant in the ancient Story-Tellers' Bazaar said. He referred to Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who restored democracy to Pakistan 15 months ago after nearly a decade of dictatorship under a fundamentalist military president, Gen. Zia ul-Haq.
"Under Zia, the police would have been on us in a second," the merchant went on, "and we'd have been flogged mercilessly. Now, the police are in on it. We give them a cut of the profits, or we just give them free movies. This is democracy."
At a time when fundamentalism is firmly entrenched in the Islamic world, from Iran to Kashmir and from Soviet Central Asia south to Indonesia, mainstream Pakistanis are moving toward a much more tolerant position.
Much of the change is clearly owing to Bhutto, who was regarded as so liberal in the 1988 election campaign that the opposition circulated photos of scantily clad Western women with Bhutto's face superimposed.
Bhutto, 36, has tried to present herself as a good Muslim. She does not appear in public without her head covered, she observes all the major Islamic holidays and last week she made a state visit to Saudi Arabia, where she performed the sacred Islamic rite of Umra.
Yet she has moved to liberalize the country. She has opened state-run television to variety shows and all but eliminated the public floggings that were prevalent under Zia's Islamic laws.
Like most moderates, though, Bhutto remains an easy target, not only for Pakistan's well-organized minority fundamentalist parties but also for the extreme liberals who believe Bhutto has done little of substance to modernize Pakistani society.
A sample of the conservatives' criticism appeared recently in the Nation, the daily newspaper in the progressive eastern city of Lahore. Citing such issues as pornography and a widely acknowledged explosion of official corruption, a reader named Syed Abdul Jabbar complained in a letter to the editor:
"In Zia's time, a few people may have received physical thrashings; today, not a day goes by when we are not subjected to severe mental thrashing. The last 15 months have seen the wholesale mental massacre of the people of Pakistan. I think it would be true to say that we have reached a point when the interests of the country and the interests of democracy have begun to diverge."
Fundamentalist religious leaders, who have been backing Bhutto's enemies in the opposition Islamic Democratic Alliance, are attempting to plug in to such popular sentiment in a growing campaign against the new "social evils" spawned by Bhutto's nascent democracy.
Moulana Abdullah Darkhawasti, a leader of the conservative Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Islam party, declared at a fundamentalist rally in April that Bhutto was threatening to turn Pakistan into a secular state. His group is joining several other religious parties in a national "Anti-Sin Week" scheduled to start May 11.
Among the planned activities is a campaign of stoning television sets as "symbols of obscenity." Under Bhutto's liberalization of the government's monopoly TV network, female newscasters are no longer required to have their heads covered while on the air, and this is sinful, as the fundamentalists see it.
There also has been criticism from people at the other extreme, the progressives who argue that Pakistan's first female leader has done nothing to liberate the long-oppressed women.