Ali Xeeshan and Saira Shakira under fire for glamourising male gaze and abuse

Updated 20 Aug, 2016 03:11pm

Images Staff

The designers say this wasn't their intention. But then why does Pakistani fashion keep tripping up?

A few hours after they were published, images from designer Saira Shakira's photoshoot for retail brand Crimson created a stir on social media as they were called out for promoting and glamourising rape culture.

The image from Saira Shakira's campaign with Crimson
The image from Saira Shakira's campaign with Crimson

A photograph from an Ali Xeeshan shoot featuring models Amna Babar and Hasnain Lehri was quickly thrust into the fray and deemed similarly problematic.

The offending image from Ali Xeeshan
The offending image from Ali Xeeshan

In the first set of images, model and actress Sanam Saeed is seen idling on a street corner while a group of well-dressed men eye her appraisingly from afar. In the second, Hasnain Lehri appears to be clutching Amna Babar's wrist in a posture of dominance.

Reactions across social media were swift. "This is extremely problematic and frankly quite sickening," said feminist collective Girls at Dhabas of the Saira Shakira x Crimson photo shoot. "Designers like Saira Shakira romanticizing rape culture for profit... We have received messages from people who are very disturbed by this and we want to ensure accountability so that this is a clear message for all outlets."

Of Ali Xeeshan's photo, one commentator said on Twitter: "Hey Ali Xeeshan, not sure what's going on here. Is the guy forcing himself on the girl? Is that supposed to be erotic?" Others quickly joined the fray, saying: "Love both their [designer's] clothes, don't know why they have to stoop so low for marketing."

Commentators lashed out against Ali Xeeshan's photoshoot
Commentators lashed out against Ali Xeeshan's photoshoot

This is not the first time Pakistani designers have been called out for producing problematic ad campaigns. In 2013 designer Aamna Aqeel was criticised for a photoshoot titled "Be My Slave" that appeared to glamourise child labour. In 2015, when Ali Xeeshan featured a heavily tanned Amna Babar in photo shoot that purportedly meant to embrace dusky beauty, he was criticised for using a fair skinned model and then modifying her skin tone in lieu of featuring a darker-skinned model.

So what's going on?

Anum Akram of Crimson claims the furor is just an "internet scandal created out of nothing." In the photoshoot, she continues, Sanam Saeed is simply emulating a celebrity and so, wherever she goes, people stare at her.

The designer behind Saira Shakira issued this clarification (R) and then uploaded a new image from the same shoot (L)
The designer behind Saira Shakira issued this clarification (R) and then uploaded a new image from the same shoot (L)

Saira of Saira Shakira feels the images are being viewed out of context, and therefore cannot be conclusively judged. "There are more images where Sanam is being admired by ballerinas, and traveling. When these images release this Sunday, people will see that we did not intend to demean women in any way," she says. After posting this clarification on Facebook Saira Shakira x Crimson released another photograph from the same campaign that featured Sanam Saeed surrounded by young girls admiring her.

Can Ali Xeeshan claim context as a saving grace?

The designer has since removed the image in question from his Instagram account, saying: "This shoot was my way of showing a mirror to the society and depict [sic] that many men behave like this with women. I did not mean to glamorise female abuse. However, I have now removed the image from my Instagram. Perhaps in our society we prefer to turn away and are not yet ready to admit what's wrong. All we want to see is beautiful imagery."

Photographer Abdullah Haris, who shot Ali Xeeshan's campaign, adds: "I always wanted to be a filmmaker and I just wanted to create a scene with drama. If you look at my portfolio, my work predominantly shows confident women. I would never intentionally create a scene that depicts suppression of women."

Intentional or not, one can't deny that the images above have disturbed many.

It does appear that when it comes to Pakistani fashion shoots, there's often a gap between a designer's intended vision and the final product, and people are getting frustrated that they have to point out the disconnect.

Reporting by Maliha Rehman