In July 2018, 31-year-old Shehzil Malik posted a graphic artwork on her Facebook page of a woman in a burkha walking by, while three men stare at her. The men, dressed in Pathani suits, look like they’re either mid-smirk or mid-wolf whistling. The background of the artwork indicates, at least for me as a woman across the border from where Malik lives, that the location is a South Asian locality. Malik, born and brought up in Lahore, has been involved in creating artwork and illustrations on, and for women from Pakistan, representing an identity that the mainstream and international media often miss out on.
This work is one of them. Within hours, the post reached over 2,00,000 people on Facebook, seeing, as Malik states below in the same post, by people “beyond [her] usual audience”.
It also received an overwhelming response. But a few (mostly men) had this to say:
“Allah commands women to wear hijab therefore they wear it.”
“This act is condemnable but it doesn't mean that women shouldn't cover her body.”
“Yeah, so these retards are going to stare at you anyways. So give these fuckers some titties and Booties to watch, eh...??”
Today, on International Women’s Day, as I mention this viral post to her over email, I can almost feel a shrug and a gentle laugh from her as she types her response. “Ah yes, that one made a lot of men very angry!” she says. “I don't draw for the responses I get. I'm interested in telling stories and being honest. I don’t read many of the comments I get; it's not productive. Artists have been working for centuries without immediate feedback from thousands of people, and I think that still works today.”
As a Pakistani artist, feminist and activist, Malik is a significant millennial voice emerging from South Asia—one that acknowledges the stereotyped representation of women in popular and mainstream culture, and seeks to demolish them through her work. The cultural and gendered roles in South Asia are deeply steeped in patriarchy, one that generations of women have been struggling to break, one problem at a time. And boy, there are a lot of them; the Me Too movement in the subcontinent has made that pretty evident.
Today, though, as we speak, thousands of women are currently marching for the revolutionary Aurat March in Pakistan to commemorate International Women’s Day (It is scheduled to conclude at 6.30 pm IST today). The movement started last year in the country with the attempt to mobilise feminists across the country as well as vernacularise the movement. That’s how the marchers decided to own the term ‘Aurat’, which literally translates to ‘woman’ but is often laden with derogatory, sexist connotations. Last year, slogans such as “Ghar ka kaam, sab ka kaam (Household work is everybody’s work)”, “Khud khana garam karo (Heat up your own goddamn food)” and “Paratha rolls, not gender roles” added to the local flavour of the movement.
Here, too, Malik’s presence is pleasantly conspicuous. As someone who has been very vocal about how inaccessible public spaces are in Pakistan for women, Malik joined the efforts of Nighat Dad and Leena Ghani, the organisers of Aurat March, early this year, and has contributed in the form of driving visual campaigns.
You’ll see her posters across the city of Lahore—in schools, offices, universities, shops, public walls. “I could not have imagined a better use for my art,” she tells me. In the days that led up to the march, she also saw that some of her posters had been torn down. “However, the posters are free to download, and women and girls across Pakistan have been proactively engaging in outreach, talking to people and pasting the posters all across the cities. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Birth of a Feminist
In South Asia, patriarchy has a funny way of showing up at close quarters, and most times, it starts right at home. “In fact, I never got into this line of work thinking I’m being a feminist activist. I still see myself as a person who draws and tells stories about my experiences and my observations as a woman,” says Malik. “I think I have a gendered lens on how I look at the world because Pakistan happens to be such a harsh contrast in how men and women live here. You simply have to look over at your brother or cousin, colleague or friend to notice how many experiences are policed or denied to you because you were born a woman.”
Malik’s own ideas of feminism, “funnily enough”, came from her father, who “likes to cook and clean up after himself”. “He is nurturing and loves musicals, he can embroider and draw, he is an engineer and fixes everything around the house,” she says. “He showed me that men and women can both be kind; that gender roles are made up. I expected the same enlightened equal views from men in general, and I am still shocked when I see sexism in action. It’s amazing to watch our species still not realise we are all the same. How have we not cracked how to treat one another already?”As a millennial growing up in Pakistan in the ’90s and 2000s, Malik was also exposed to a lot of American television and comic books, Reader’s Digest subscriptions and Enid Blyton novels. “It was a very westernised upbringing, which is why I think I always was a bit of a misfit in Pakistan. It was after my time in America that I realised that I was drawing from someone else’s culture, and returned to Pakistan with a special interest to look at our stories and visual culture with fresh eyes, and to tell stories from this part of the world,” she says.
A Long Road Ahead
Over the years, Malik has worked on visual campaigns for various women-related projects, such as Oxfam’s 16 Days of Activism, which is about ending gender violence and Ab Aur Nahi, a platform where lawyers work pro bono for women who have cases of sexual harassment but lack the resources to pursue them. She has also worked closely with Behbud, an organisation that works for the economic upliftment of women.
“My role models are people who are kind, who have empathy for others and use their privileges for others,” she says. “Even if I'm not working with NGOs, my commissioned work also deals with women’s stories, whether it is a children’s book on Maria Toorpakai Wazir, who defied the Taliban and became a squash champion, or a book on women in tech, drawing for (Pakistani actress) Meesha Shafi and supporting her in bringing the #MeToo movement to Pakistan, to now, the Aurat March campaign.”
As South Asian women, a lot adds up to our struggles, especially the invisibility. “All our stories, be it of success or failures, are not well-known to the world at large. I want South Asian lives to be seen. I want our struggles to be recognised. It helps all of us when there is empathy and understanding between people. We feel so many western icons are our heroes. It is time for our protagonists to be their heroes as well,” she says.
Being in Pakistan doesn’t mean her work is restricted to her country. I, in fact, came across her work last year on Twitter, a space where her activism resonates with South Asians across the world. “I was recently in Nepal and met women artists from Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Sri lanka. I realised that while details differ, we all have similar challenges with patriarchal systems, parental control, political instability and a desire to change things. I think the topics I draw about—access to public spaces, being fearless in your life, perceptions of beauty, reconciling tradition with our modern ideas—are those that apply throughout South Asia.”Malik is currently in Germany, for an ongoing exhibition of her works at the Frauenkultur Centre in Leipzig. She is also doing workshops with Syrian refugee women and girls living there, along with talking to German school children about her work, South Asian lives and feminism. Today, for Women’s Day, she is painting at the city square, “to encourage art and dialogue about women.”
As the war on patriarchy rages on, Malik leaves us with this one note: “If my work makes you angry, it says more about you and your beliefs than about me. Maybe it's time to be self reflective and ask yourself why a drawing of a woman makes you angry in the first place!”
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.