Spiraling through history, we’ve always boasted trendy, dedicated female figureheads; a Fatima Jinnah wielding political strategy in a crisp shalwar kameez or a Begum Liaquat Ali Khan resplendent in a traditional gharara while talking war strategies and meeting dignitaries.
Benazir Bhutto, the country’s first and only female prime minister cut a well-groomed figure and only recently, Maryam Nawaz spoke on the importance of women’s education in Washington, epitomising the Pakistani woman in an embroidered Maria B jora.
Moving away from politics and zoning in on the arts, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is currently winning international accolades for her latest venture, eloquently titled Song of Lahore.
And how can we forget Sharmeen bringing home an Oscar back in 2012, winning in the Best Documentary, Short Subject category? She had worn a bespoke design by Bunto Kazmi and a KFJ gold cuff with a dangling diamond-encrusted Pakistan flag on her wrist and earrings by Sheherzad Rahimtoola.
More than her designer wear, though, it had been her acceptance speech that had Pakistan cheering and the world taking notice: “All the women in Pakistan working for change, don’t give up on your dreams, this is for you.”
From Malala Yousufzai to Bilquis Edhi, Maleeha Lodhi to Sheema Kirmani (and even Burka Avenger), an increasing number of Pakistani women are breaking away from traditional shackles and highlighting what is important to themselves or to their country. The fairer sex, certainly; but hardly the weaker.
Another case in point is Rabiya Javeri Agha who as Secretary to the Trade Development Authority Pakistan (TDAP) has lead quite a few delegations and organised Pakistani trade exhibits abroad.
Last year, she spearheaded the Aalishan Pakistan trade fair in Delhi and recently she was instrumental in leading a mostly-women delegation to the Ghent Fair in Belgium.
A ‘Pakistan Pavilion’ at the nine-day fair manifested the best of Pakistan in technicolor glory; traversing indigenous ajraks, tapestries, artwork and designer wear, alongside export mainstays like leather, marble, handicrafts and carpets.
Nilofer Farrukh curated the art segment which featured the work of Masuma Halai and Meher Afroz. Taking center stage was a quintessentially vibrant phool-patti embellished rickshaw where visitors could take photographs and which was later gifted to the Mayor of Ghent.
“In Ghent, every single person, artist, performer or organiser, came forward pro bono, propelled simply by the desire to showcase Pakistan at its best," explains Rabiya.
She continued, "Sadly, perceptions about our country are warped and this, in turn, affects both our GSP-plus status and our export contracts. If people do not like you, they simply won’t do business with you. We needed to show the visitors the many facets that defined Pakistan; its products, art, music and most of all, the power and capability of its youth."
"Nobody there could have imagined that Pakistani women are Academy Award winners, international sprinters or even mountain climbers,” she concluded emphatically.
The present-day Pakistani woman is something of an anomaly to the world at large. Shrugging away preconceived notions of a war-torn, extremism-ridden country, she stalks onto the international arena and makes important statements. She’s confident, educated and hardly the Taliban-ised assassin that the West had imagined her to be … unless looks could kill. And oh, most of our representatives in the international world also have fabulous wardrobes!
From a global viewpoint, such events may be mere drops in the ocean but bit by bit, they are building an image of a progressive-minded Pakistan. And more often than not, the building blocks are being laid by women.
A significant torch-bearer has been PR maven Frieha Altaf. Earlier this year, she was invited to Mauritius as a guest speaker at the Destination Wedding Planner (DWP) Congress in 2015. She also represents Pakistan at the annual Masala! Awards in the UAE and orchestrates occasional events abroad.
“I try my best to eliminate the negativity surrounding Pakistan,” she says. “It changes people’s perception when designers like Sana Safinaz win ‘International designer of the Year’ at the Masala! Awards, as they did in 2012, or when I speak on work ethics at a prestigious platform like the DWP Congress."
"They see me and get taken aback because they can relate to me. Many of them don’t expect a woman from Pakistan to be quite so contemporary in appearance and outlook. But every time a Pakistani — whether male or female — makes inroads, internationally, it helps build the country’s image,” she shares.
One of these image-builders is certainly actress Mahira Khan — beautiful, with a predilection for gorgeous designer wear while making umpteen red carpet appearances abroad and awaiting the release of her much-awaited Bollywood debut opposite Shahrukh Khan next year. “People get pleasantly surprised when they discover my nationality,” she relates.
“It’s good to shatter the images they have construed. I like it when I am posed with challenging questions or even some very ignorant questions.”
Designer Maheen Khan, boasting a career where she has repetitively built her business through participation in international fairs and shows, mulls over the ignorance people often harbor regarding Pakistan.
“I am asked ‘How could you be from Pakistan?’” she says, “and I am happy to tell them about the many dimensions that define my country. At the same time, I find their ignorance bordering on arrogance — they don’t know about my country because they haven’t bothered to know about it."
"The world’s a global village and well-travelled, well-read people are generally aware of Pakistan’s burgeoning fashion fraternity and cultural strengths. The rest, hopefully, will get better informed with time.”
It’s a constant battle that Pakistan’s veritable warriors fight, charging over a landscape mired with political conflict and violence and helping their country’s image to rise above the ashes.
A Sania Maskatiya does it by being part of the internationally acclaimed Lakme Fashion Week last year, following it up with the Vogue Wedding Show in India this year and getting nominated twice in a row for the prestigious fashion-centric international Woolmark Prize.
A Syeda Amera does it when she gets featured as a designer within the esteemed pages of British Vogue. A Nilofer Shahid does it when her work is displayed at the Royal Albert Hall in UK. A Maria B. does it when she cashes in on her lawn designing prowess by extending feelers into India
A Kamila Shamsie does it when she churns out her bestsellers and a Kiran Aman does it when she publishes books that go on to win awards at internationally acclaimed festivals.
It may be called a man’s world and to be fair, Pakistan also boasts a milieu of extraordinary men, making it proud. But glance beyond the testosterone and you may spy the many women steering this world forward, with resolute iron fists, albeit hidden in velveteen gloves.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 8th, 2015