In a male-dominated society, a new, homegrown fashion line defies feminine stereotypes. While these images may empower women, class divides limit their effect.
"It feels like all over the world, whether it is telling women to take their clothes off or to put more on: the power of what is appropriate to wear seems to lie with patriarchal society and not with women themselves," says Shehzil Malik, a 30 year-old Pakistani digital artist.
The 2016 French burkini ban struck Malik as a particularly offensive piece of legislation – a painful confirmation of the global surveillance of women's bodies.
To give women "ownership over what they wear," Malik launched Pakistan's first feminist fashion collection in October 2017. Her designs depict characters who "push the boundaries of what it means to be a Pakistani woman."
Some of these women wear scarves, some have flowing hair; some are dark-skinned, some fair-skinned; some are tattooed, others bejeweled; some ride bikes and others read books. They all command respect. "These are women who hold your gaze unapologetically," says Malik.
Role models in art
Malik's artistic journey began in 2015 when she started creating illustrations – often in a vibrant and dazzling GIF format – on the theme of women's experiences in public spaces.
One illustration of a girl walking down a street went viral. Dragged down by the voyeuristic gaze of sleazy men, her insecurities and inner monologues are written across her clothes: 'Is my shirt not long enough?', 'Is my chest covered?' Throughout her ordeal, she reminds herself to 'just...keep...walking.'
After Malik posted the image on her blog "Notes to Self," it struck a chord with women who shared her inner monologues all over the world "in Pakistan, India, Germany, in the UK and US." Inspired by the artwork and equally tired of the arbitrary way dress codes determined their place in society, they told their own stories.
Realizing that her art could inspire and empower women to assert themselves in public life, "I wanted to make pictures of women that you could look at and think, 'Oh, she's a Pakistani girl, and she's very comfortable in her own skin. I wish I could be like that!' Because that's what I'm kind of drawing for myself – I give myself these role models in art," says Malik.
"As a woman who had grown up on Western pop culture" but was not represented in it, Malik developed a visual language that reflected the global dimension of the Pakistani experience. Cross-dressing cultural icons across the East-West divide, Malik imagined Wonder Woman as a brown-skinned girl and a famous Pakistani folk singer in the signature glam-rock look of the band Kiss.
Sometimes the clothing in Malik's illustrations points to the ambiguities in the situation of its wearer
Empowering women through fashion
In her essay on feminism and fashion, Nigerian writer and researcher Varyanne Sika outlines how dress and fashion shape social identity: "Getting dressed every day is a compulsory, non-negotiable activity for most people; we can hardly ever exercise our preferences on the matter, writes Sika. "Instead, we decide how to execute the dressing process."
At the same time, she adds, fashion, whether in urban or rural areas, is one of many symbols of class distinctions in a society that "divides women into those who can afford to interact with it and those who cannot."
Selling at prices from $10-50, the pieces in Shehzil's line at the fashion company "Generation" are likely to be worn by women who already enjoy a certain level of class protection when they enter public spaces. Moreover, the collection's limited release creates an air of exclusivity that might appeal to customers' sense of individuality while undercutting the universal message typically found in Malik's artwork.
'An 11-foot woman, looming over a bike onto the bridge'
Malik suffers no delusions about fashion-driven social change, acknowledging the "difficulty of having conversations about public spaces in Pakistan without realizing the class differences that exist here."
Not wanting her characters to be limited to retail shops and billboards, Malik decided to bring them to the streets as part of a graffiti project. Under a bridge in her native Lahore, she found a space where people "from all walks of life are found, from the hustle and bustle of the shops to the pedestrians, bikes and cars that make their way through the city," says Malik.
With help from her sister, friend and domestic staff, she pasted an 11-foot woman on the intersection. "Soon we had gathered a small crowd of onlookers curious about what we were doing. With a lot of adhesive, a tall ladder and suggestions from the crowd, we managed to paste a giant woman looming over a bike onto the bridge."
The next morning, Shehzil's fearless biker had disappeared, leaving unanswered questions: was she taken away because somebody had fallen in love with her or because somebody was disturbed by her presence?
'More power to the powerless, always'
More often than not, women's clothes are designed to satisfy the male gaze, but Malik hopes that her new collection will make women "recognize their own inherent strength."
"The intention behind the clothes was to spread a message of hope and strength – that the younger generation could see themselves in the ambitions expressed in the artwork of the collection," says Malik.
While Shehzil's fashion line is paved with good intentions, making it accessible to women from different walks of life remains a challenge. However, as Aisha Ahmad, a Pakistani researcher at University of Oxford, puts it, "I think women asserting themselves through fashion as heterogeneous – strong and angry and delicate all at the same time – is unequivocally a good thing."
"How much that cuts across lines of class and geography and culture is a question we must ask ourselves, lest we get carried away," adds Ahmad. "That said, more power to the powerless. Always."
This story is part of Well-connected Women, a European Journalism Centre project, telling stories of women harnessing the internet for gender equality in Pakistan. For more stories, follow @wconnectedwomen.