Artwork by Marium Taufeeq
By Nida Hasan
Short Bio: The author is the Lifestyle Co-Editor for Brown Girl Magazine, New York and an aspiring entrepreneur. You’ll forever find her in search of a good story, a good meal and a great outfit.
How many Pakistani celebrities have you heard saying, “Of course I believe men and women are equal but I am not a feminist”? It’s like saying Muslims are terrorists but I am not an Islamophobe. Sounds foolish and hypocritical, right? Pakistan’s media and fashion industry have had a sour relationship with feminism since time immemorial. It’s almost as if associating with the word “feminism” would be doing a disservice to their country and it’s people. In hindsight, it perhaps would be a disservice to their culture and its values; because after all those are guided by a deeply ingrained system of patriarchy. But even if the fashion industry actively insists on being equitable, despite refusing to identify with the feminist movement, is it really being fair, impartial and accepting of all? Not quite.
Over the past few years, global fashion has seen a massive push-back from the body positive movement. After decades of idealising unrealistic and prejudicial beauty standards, that fashion magazines and media houses have repeatedly fed us with, and questioning their own self-worth, women have finally come forth to fight for their existence; acceptance and representation in all shapes, sizes and forms. Research studies on the negative impact of fashion and media’s skewed depiction of beauty on teens and adult women have also helped support the dialogue. And there has been a noticeable shift in how fashion labels are operating across the world. Be it senior models, black models or plus-size ones, brands are going the extra mile to be diverse and inclusive in their approach. Women from all walks of life are not just part of some of the biggest fashion campaigns by renowned labels but can also be seen gracing high-profile runways. There’s still a long way to go but at least the tone has been set. Pakistan, on the other hand, is still very much surviving on the colonial mindset – fairer, the prettier; skinnier, the better.
The foundations of this one-dimensional, conformist, toxic ideology were first set in the Middle Ages when light skin was believed to be ‘a blessing from God’. Overtime, as a result of colonisation, the belief travelled across the Asian and African regions and cemented itself as the benchmark for beauty and, in turn, a better life and opportunities in cultures that were already marginalised for their racial differences. White became symbolic of power and influence over those with darker skin tones. Similarly, it was not until the 1960s and 70s that having curves became the bane for aspiring women in society at large.
Media, serving as a major marketer for patriarchy, played into the cause; encouraging women to control their weight and discipline their bodies to a certain acceptable figure size. This endless policing of women’s bodies was only a means to uphold the structural beliefs of patriarchy and confine women to fit the roles laid out for them by their male counterparts. After decades of persistence and sheer hard work by those very feminists, who are so often put to shame or treated as outcasts, the world seems to be progressing; on a road to freedom from the shackles of an archaic, male-driven value system. But Pakistan continues to remain deeply engulfed in it. And despite being touted as the more liberal section of society, fashion and it’s patrons are not any less to be blamed.
It was only a few years ago I saw the first plus-size model being featured in a major retail fashion campaign. Prior to that, women on the heavier side had no significance in the advertising world. The only rare moments you were able to witness a fuller woman on screen was as a mere source of comic relief, offering comic respite in either self-loathing or public mockery. More recently though, brands like Khaadi, Lulusar and Generation have been conscious about being diverse and inclusive in both their marketing and product strategies. Still, these efforts have been far and few in between. Diversity, equality and inclusivity in all their forms have been a rare sight.
More recently, couture labels like Sana Safinaz and Ali Xeeshan have also walked the perennial odds, featuring a senior model in one of their campaigns. But pictured within a sea of conventional, widely-celebrated symbols of beauty, their moves to be inclusive seemed more a one-off than a lifelong commitment or a consequential shift in their policies . Practising equality and diversity requires commitment – a commitment to redefining stale and bigoted norms and to being socially responsible over personal gains – and a democratic approach. But what happens more so often is a sort of tokenism. Where women, left of the ideal, are either placed as a prop amidst the standard beauty brigade to give consumers a taste of their so-called progressive fashion values or simply forgotten after a one-off stint in the name of activism. On runways, the bright, lean and tall reign supreme. Whereas on the racks, one to two sizes must fit all; what you may see is not what you are going to get. In short, brands are just peddling on diversity and empowerment to reap profits because it’s an idea that’s selling hot at the moment.
Being equal and inclusive means accepting women in all their God-created forms – women with disabilities, women with darker skin tones, women past a certain age, women with skin conditions and women with alopecia; women who lead real lives, face real struggles, experience real trauma. Plus-size women, albeit important, are not the only representations of diversity. Diversity is accepting individuality regardless of how distinct it maybe. Reality doesn’t discriminate, it does not pick and choose, it does not come with a filter – it’s raw, rough around the edges and imperfect, but still worth your while.
Regardless of fashion’s ongoing revolution, the move to be equal and inclusive is also dependant on what is intrinsically satisfying for the brand and the force behind it, and what is the end goal – is it the sale of a product or is it to engage it’s consumers, address their reformative demands and secure loyalty. Preaching what they don’t practice, nor aim to, is not going to suffice anymore. It’s only being illusive of these concepts, if local fashion houses fail to nurture an environment where all women feel comfortable, represented and heard. Where flaws are embraced, reality celebrated and conversations uninterrupted. Feminist or not, the local fashion industry is not fair and equal even among the women it employs and caters to, let alone between men and women.