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Celebrities like Bushra Ansari bear the worst of ageism in Pakistan

Bushra Ansari and Hina Bayat share how they navigate the social media commentary about their sartorial choices
Updated Jun 05, 2017 11:39am

At the end of my interview with Bushra Ansari a thought crossed my mind: I finally know what I want to be like in 30 years.

Bushra Ansari is awesome. She is self-assured and accomplished. Like a true grand dame she has the airs of someone who has lived life. A life that she has lived in a way that makes me look forward to leaving behind the uncertainties of my 20s.

A lot of our interview centered around fame, fashion and being female. We talk about the difference between style and trend. We also talked about the double-edged sword that is being famous in the age of social media. At the core of our conversation was the singular truth: for women in the public eye there are so many ways to fail.

Much ado about a jumpsuit

The Twitter trolls came for her just days ago after a photo of her wearing a classic, unfussy, sleeveless black jumpsuit at Hum Showcase red carpet went viral.

Bushra Ansari at the Hum Showcase red carpet
Bushra Ansari at the Hum Showcase red carpet

The comments were ridiculous, ranging from the absurdist (‘aunty go back to wearing saris’) to the sexist ('why didn’t her children and husband stop her from leaving home?!') to the ageist (‘if only people start acting and dressing their age! #bushraansari’ and ‘iss age mein kabron ke designs dekhne chahiye’).

Ansari did not mince words when I asked her how she feels about internet trolls who are like sharks to blood when it comes to celebrities’ misinterpreted interviews or sartorial choices.

“Yes, you need some sensitivity in the way you present yourself to your public. But to judge someone for wearing jeans [as if] it automatically means they are not a good woman is not healthy.” — Bushra Ansari

She thinks that telling someone they should or should not wear a gown, pants or a hijab is an unhealthy form of criticism.

“Yes, you need some sensitivity in the way you present yourself to your public. But to judge someone for wearing jeans [as if] it automatically means they are not a good woman is not healthy.”

Because Ansari is a self-proclaimed lover of variation and is prone to boredom, she has always been quick to embrace changing trends. There was an awami-inspired phase during which she exclusively wore men’s clothing and Peshawari chappals. Then there is her constant tug and pull with the length of her hair. (While she prefers short hair she finds that she needs long hair for drama serials like Udaari in which she rocked a choti).

The passion for variation is not reserved for the red carpet. She tells me that since the age of 27 when she played a much older woman she has been happy to take on roles that demand extremes of her.

But for Ansari the way she chooses to dress up or down should not be news to an audience that has been watching her regularly for decades. Referring to the time when actresses like Marina Khan would frequently come on television with super short hair and no makeup, she questions why there was no vitriolic dialogue back then.

“Perhaps, social media has given people ijazat to have opinions. I don’t understand it. It’s not always a good thing,” she muses.

Tuning out the voices

Ansari’s contemporary Hina Bayat echoes a similar sentiment telling me that while she makes efforts not to offend her audience’s sensibilities she is not willing to go against her own convictions for the sake of pleasing others.

Hina Bayat as the showstopper for Natasha Kamal at PSFW 2015
Hina Bayat as the showstopper for Natasha Kamal at PSFW 2015

"I am not one of those who will don a hijab or a dupatta for a Ramazan show unless it’s during the azaan, qirat or naat - as I would do in my daily life. Similarly, I won’t become a clotheshorse for a designer simply so I can be dressed for a red carpet unless I feel that it is me inside those clothes." — Hina Bayat

“Being a public figure comes with certain responsibility. Even unwillingly we become role models for others who have expectations from us but I am not one of those who will don a hijab or a dupatta for a Ramazan show unless it’s during the azaan, qirat or naat - as I would do in my daily life. Similarly, I won’t become a clotheshorse for a designer simply so I can be dressed for a red carpet unless I feel that it is me inside those clothes,” Bayat told Images.

What's Pakistan's problem with fashion beyond a certain age?

This no-holds-barred social media skewering that Ansari and Bayat speak of is, without a doubt, what celebrity culture around the world has mutated into.

In fact, we see it so often that not only have we have come to expect it, I would argue that we have become numb to it. This better-than-you, judgmental, moralistic, and toxic dialogue has many disguises.

There is the derogatory name-calling that seems to permanently follow the likes of the uber-famous Kardashian clan or, on a domestic front, the Hocane sisters.

There is the stealth sexist and ageist takedown of powerful public figures like Hillary Clinton who had to succumb to wearing brighter colors and smiling more often while on the campaign trail after the media said she had a ‘likability’ problem.

Indeed, famous females world over are not immune to the trifecta of ageism, sexism, and lookism.

However, I would argue, that in a place like Pakistan where the class system is very much alive, and where there is no settled definition on religious or cultural norms, the social media takedown of female celebs is particularly sinister and sanctimonious.

Female celebrities in Pakistan are palatable so long as they don’t have the pluck to act or dress in a way that goes against society’s arbitrary age benchmark after which we expect these women to neatly tuck themselves into a matronly, fashion-free, sexless wormhole.

We saw this when the Twitter trolls rushed forth, torches ablazing, pitchforks at the ready, deeply offended that Ansari had dressed in an outfit that according to them was befitting only of a size zero someone born in the nineties.

This same group was gushed over veteran actress Reema’s comeback performance because her performance was predictable and, therefore, palatable to them.

Reema's comeback at this year's Lux Style Awards was uniformly hailed as graceful
Reema's comeback at this year's Lux Style Awards was uniformly hailed as graceful

Reema was not deeply offensive because she was acting ‘age-appropriate’ by wearing a fully-covered, straight-laced outfit and sticking to a performance routine of ‘elegant’ dance moves (in other words, sensuous dance moves, because sensuality is the reserve of women over forty, with the nubile Mawra Hocane there to bring the actual sex appeal).

Basically, female celebrities are palatable so long as they don’t have the pluck to act or dress in a way that goes against society’s arbitrary age benchmark after which we expect these women to neatly tuck themselves into a matronly, fashion-free, sexless wormhole.

Never mind that we can only hope to look as good as Bushra Ansari at 60.

Are we scared of growing old?

Truthfully, we are all guilty of fetishing the young and dismissing the famous after they have hit a certain age.

Just think back to the last time you saw a celebrity who you grew up watching (or perhaps who aged on-screen at the same time as you) and made a comment about how “she looked so good (or bad)...for her age”.

Bushra Ansari rocking a daring do for her brief appearance in Jawani Phir Nahi Ani
Bushra Ansari rocking a daring do for her brief appearance in Jawani Phir Nahi Ani

But, as both Ansari and Bayat are quick to tell me: style will always transcend age.

Although trends gear themselves for the younger crowd, style is different from being on-trend.

For Bayat style is about finding the confidence to dress for herself and to be comfortable and happy with the age she is at.

“We all have to age but if you are secure in your own skin you can truly enjoy your journey through life,” she points out. “Your appearance is a reflection of who and what you are - fashion can be dated, an individual should not be.”

Perhaps it is this generation’s great tragedy is that we will have spent our time on earth hell bent on feverishly celebrating the temporary gloss of youth. We will continue to be outraged at the Bushra Ansari’s sleeveless jumpsuit. But we will gleefully watch preteen and teenaged Lolitas batting their false lashes at an actor three times her age.

Why then do so many of us forget to celebrate the privilege of living a long life and the confidence, empowerment, and wisdom that comes with it?

Perhaps this fear of aging and the aged is actually a placeholder for our fear of becoming invisible and purposeless. After all, in today’s frenzied, fast-paced world of filtered images and self-driving cars, both people and objects are prone to becoming outdated well before their time is up.

Or perhaps, as Ansari believes, because we are dissatisfied with ourselves we are okay with subjecting the women we watch on our screens to cruel verbal attacks. Maybe it just makes us feel better about ourselves.

Or perhaps it is this generation’s great tragedy is that we will have spent our time on earth hell bent on feverishly celebrating the temporary gloss of youth. We will continue to be outraged at the Bushra Ansari’s of the world for having the audacity to wear a sleeveless jumpsuit. But we will gleefully watch preteen and teenaged Lolitas batting their false lashes at an actor three times her age.

Whatever our reason may be, the outcome is the same.

By demanding that mature, independent women make only sartorial and beauty choices that we, the public, are comfortable with means we are flagrantly stripping away the autonomy, maturity, and sexuality of these fully grown and exceptionally accomplished women.

And by forcing our warped ideals of what fashion or beauty should look like at any given age we are not only affecting how we view famous women but also how we view ourselves