Five young Pakistani women wearing fashionable and modern Pakistani clothes travel to a busy street in Lahore’s Anarkali district.
They encounter a typical episode of street harassment and then break out into an impromptu dance session to express themselves in a public space that’s normally off-limits to women.
At the end of the video, we learn that this is an advertisement for the clothing company, whose brand encourages women to “do your own thing (DYOT).”
The video has generated enough controversy to make us question whether it was a great idea or a PR nightmare.
More importantly, it has raised debate about what value we place on the idea of women doing “their own thing.”
Obviously not meant to portray reality — the days when women danced publicly in Anarkali are long over — the flash mob video was meant to go viral in order to increase DYOT’s brand image in a market that’s saturated with bigger fashion names. For a company with a small budget, using social media is the most cost effective way to garner attention.
But going viral is always a risk because you can't control the people's response to it.
Unfortunately for DYOT, the response to the video hasn't been as positive as its makers would have hoped for.
It seems they wanted to put out the video as an oblique statement of women’s independence. But since the message was not clear enough, and because society is particularly sensitive about how women are portrayed in the media, the backlash was almost immediate.
Viewers refuse to accept the video as an example of women’s empowerment (a phrase that’s already starting to sound overused and commercialised), criticise its cynical use of women’s bodies to sell clothing, and bring up Pakistan’s modesty culture as reasons for their dislike.
On the other hand, the activist group Girls at Dhabas (GAD) attempted to engage with the video by analysing the messages they saw in it.
Yes, the ad had an agenda — to sell clothes — and yes, feminism is being commercialised. The ad’s use of conventionally attractive women, as well as its demonisation of men from lower socio-economic classes, is problematic.
But GAD did correctly point out that the ad does portray female mobility and access to public space. They stated, "we often tend to want it to be done in a certain way, in what we perceive to be the most intentional or informed way. But in that process we must not adopt a holier-than-thou approach or start policing other women’s behaviour in public space. We may or may not like it, but this ad too, is an expression of mobility."
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the ad though is its hostile and adversarial tone.
The first woman enters the scene, her chador slipping as she exits the rickshaw and walks into the bazaar. The men stare, and one man walks close by her, whispering a lecherous “mashallah.”
The other women notice, the girl breaks into a dance, and is joined by the rest of the women.
But the scene is full of tension and the women’s faces are hard masks of anger.
As the women dance, men gather around, their own faces a mix of confusion, leering, hostility, and suspicion. Some take photographs of the dancing women.
There’s a sense that they’re watching caged animals in a zoo.
There’s an unspoken threat in the air, too – that something might happen to these women at any moment.
GAD wrote that the possibility of positive interaction between the genders should have been included in the ad, along with making the space look more welcoming.
But in fact, the possibility of either was completely eliminated, which made for a difficult viewing.
Compare this to the recent Nike India ad with Deepika Padukone and a host of female athletes taking over the streets of Bombay: there’s passion, joy, happiness, and power.
GAD also contrasted the DYOT ad to the recent Q mobile ad that shows girls playing cricket — another example of feminism and physical activity being used for positive effect.
This raises the question: do we need our ads, especially those that involve women, to be aspirational? Or do we need them to expose the ugly face of our society?
A DYOT ad that might have combined these elements to better effect might have gone like this:
A little girl wants to play cricket in the street with boys, but they don’t let her because she’s a girl.
Out of nowhere, the young women wearing DYOT clothing arrive in cars, rickshaws, bikes and on scooters, and park their vehicles in the street.
They set up an impromptu game of street cricket and invite the little girl to join in.
All of a sudden, all the little girls of the neighbourhood leave their household chores – cleaning, washing, cooking, childcare – and come rushing out to join the match.
Everyone has a great time and, in the end, even the boys join in.
Then the tagline “do your own thing” would have made perfect sense.
It would have delivered the strongest message of all: that gender interaction is normal, healthy, and beneficial to all.