Shortly after her surprise performance at the BET Awards in Los Angeles this week, Grammy-winning rapper Cardi B broke the internet with an iconic birth announcement on Instagram.
Although the expecting mother had already earned praise for her over-the-top announcement during the live awards ceremony – where she crashed a performance by rap trio Migos while wearing a sheer panelled dress to reveal her baby bump – she chose an equally extra embellishment for her Instagram post.
Cardi B’s post – now with 13 million likes – came with an unexpected addition: a white breastplate especially molded to memorialise her newly pregnant body.
While breastplates, an armour-like accessory modelled around a person’s chest, have become increasingly popular on fashion runways and worn by celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Zendaya, one of the most striking aspects of the one Cardi B wore was that it was made by Misha Japanwala, a young Pakistani designer.
“My Pakistani identity is deeply weaved into anything I create,” Japanwala told VICE World News. “In South Asia, women’s bodies are seen in a certain cultural context, and it’s difficult for women to have agency over their own bodies. Women I’ve worked with have told me that my designs helped them see their bodies in a different way and appreciate it.”
Pakistan ranked 151st among 153 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index Report 2020, making it one of the worst countries for gender equality. It is also considered one of the world’s most unsafe countries for women. Pakistani women have frequently spoken about being denied agency and rights in a patriarchal society.
“I get comments and DMs daily that my work goes ‘against our culture’ or that ‘how dare I create such designs as a Muslim woman’,” Japanwala said.
Previously, Japanwala has spoken about facing a barrage of misogynistic hate, from comments that say she is making “pervert art” to those who believe her work will “affect our morals and society”.
“The backlash and hate can be overwhelming sometimes, but I’ve realised that getting this kind of reaction only confirms that the work I’m doing and narrative I’m creating is especially important. It only shows that people are threatened by women taking charge of their bodies.”
At the same time, many have noted the significance of her provocative art, with Pakistan’s Aurat Collective, a women-led activist platform, calling her a “trailblazer and inspiration for so many women in Pakistan,” in a comment on her post.
“Misha’s work broadly creates an outlet for South Asian and Muslim women to expand the possibility of what they can do as creatives, and could inspire people of colour in the arts to push their limits,” Hamna Zubair, a Pakistan-based journalist and culture critic told VICE World News. Zubair added that while she was personally a fan of Japanwala’s work, it was not necessarily a representation that all South Asian or Muslim women would identify with, given the diversity of opinions in the region. “Since she lives abroad, she also has the physical freedom and safety as well as access to foreign influencers to create this work, which many women living in South Asia may not have. And in that way Misha’s success is also a sobering reminder of how much work needs to be done in South Asia to support the arts.”
Known for her signature body casts with scalloped edges that are molded to the curves and arches of each body they envelop, Japanwala’s wearable art is, in fact, a form of rebellion against the patriarchal society she grew up in. Despite Instagram’s notorious nudity censors that critics have called out for being biased against women of colour, Japanwala’s sculpture-esque designs manage to stay openly uncensored.
She consistently uses her platform to raise awareness on issues of violence against women, while her body casts are often embedded with protest slogans like “Azaadi”, which means freedom in Urdu, or “my body, my choice” in black lettering.
“A lot of people look at my work, take it at face value, and think that I’m promoting nudity,” she said. “But my work is actually about allowing women to be themselves fully and make decisions for themselves.”
“While this is needed all over the world, I think it’s even more relevant as a Pakistani woman, especially when we have a prime minister who makes statements that basically validate violence against women by victim blaming [rape survivors],” Japanwala said, commenting on controversial remarks made by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan when he blamed “vulgarity” for the country’s rise in sexual crimes and violence against women.
Japanwala’s breastplates were initially an attempt to reclaim the female body and subvert the objectifying male gaze. Today, having done everything from a collaboration with Gigi Hadid to landing in the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia List, the designer is also exploring her own identity and feelings of self-acceptance through her art.
“It’s been a very important self-love journey for me,” she said. “Like most other women, I have always been extremely critical of my own body, and creating these pieces and putting myself out there has been a huge process in accepting myself, while allowing me to connect with other women and create a collective of support.”
In fact, it is through this supportive South Asian sisterhood that Japanwala caught Cardi B’s attention.
“I’ve been trying to establish myself in the art and fashion scene for the last few years, but I think my work was noticed by Kollin Carter, Cardi B’s stylist, because of Reva Bhatt, an Indian-American stylist who had assisted him before, and [who] wanted to give more opportunities to South Asian designers like me.”.
“There’s a great sense of community and upliftment,” she added.
Japanwala’s work isn’t only limited to the South Asian space. She also uses her platform to speak up against abortion laws and violence against women in the U.S. Her art mediums, from calligraphy illustrations to her body casts, have become a way for her to process the issues she is trying to raise awareness of.
“I try to talk about issues affecting women in different parts of the world,” she said. “I feel we need to uplift each other and rally together to empower change.”