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How creative expression of Pakistani woman has changed

Updated March 08, 2019

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Shehzil Malik made a brown Wonder Woman to challenge colonial notions of beauty. — Dawn.com/File
Shehzil Malik made a brown Wonder Woman to challenge colonial notions of beauty. — Dawn.com/File

LAHORE: On the eve of the International Women’s Day, Dawn asked different women on evolution in the creative expression of the Pakistani women.

Prof Salima Hashmi says there were times when the Pakistani woman was docile. But not anymore. “She was told what to do, what to think – very few independent and outspoken women were visible,” she says about the past times. “Today, they are so much more in touch with themselves, choosing their own careers, including art, expressing themselves.”

The veteran artist feels inspired by the art produced by women today, but it definitely did not transpire out of nowhere. About visual arts – her field of expertise – she says the role of the women artists of the past must be acknowledged. “They spent hours and hours confined in their studios, working, or teaching the basics to both young men and women. But they did their work quietly as hobby, not a career,” she says, adding except for Zubaida Agha, not many were controversial – and even today she is not as accepted as she should be.

It was in the 1980s that the tide changed.

“Before this, women did not really use the female lens to see things,” she says. “Most of the work was uncontroversial and almost the same as a man’s work – landscapes or still life. Zia’s women unfriendly policies crystallised their rebellion – when the state decided to tell artists what not to paint.”

In fine arts then, women’s personal stories and their issues began surfacing and “the political became the personal”.

Even an artist’s manifesto was signed – a liberation itself for women artists. “It was a secret document back then,” says Prof Hashmi. Today it is part of her book “Unveiling the Visible”.

“Today’s women artists have the ability to juggle different kinds of work while being free enough to choose art as a career,” she says. “Today they’re at the top tier of the field as they are not afraid of choosing and mixing various media in their art work, including technology.” As for women’s issues being depicted, these have become much more internalized within the artists and serve more as a context than the point itself.

Veteran classical dancer Sheema Kermani has always stood out as a bold figure for resisting against hardline forces that have called out and even threatened her for the profession she is in.

What has been the evolution of women in this field?

“I think women today are much more self aware, more in touch with themselves physically and with their sexuality. Dance is perhaps one of most profound forms of expression, and I would say that it is very important for women to be able to straighten their spine - it gives women energy and a feeling of strength and power!”

She adds that these are the creative energies that women have now begun to explore. Though not many take up classical dancing as a profession, Ms Kirmani believes that dancing itself is a positive move where creative expression is concerned.

“Earlier, women found it difficult to act, sing or dance in public; today, they’re choosing this as a career,” she says. “Of course, there is a lot of sexual harassment at work place and elsewhere but even on this front women are fighting and taking action.”

While the market may have created career choices for many, some market forces keep on pushing women back in some ways.

Vocalist Zeb Bangash feels that while the situation may have benefited women in being more openly accepted, the issue of ‘marketability’ might have caused more damage than good. “Thirty years ago, we had women as forceful and regal as Noor Jahan, as difficult to define as Abida Parveen, as shy as Nayyara Noor and as young and fresh as Nazia Hassan and they were all part of the same market,” she says. “It’s sad that today nobody is willing to look at the craft of the woman. The marketability is affecting the image – she must be young, she must appeal to young people – where is the craft?”

Veteran playwright Hasina Moin’s opinion echoes Ms Bangash’s sentiments.

Ms Moin, whose plays used to be an attraction for audiences in the 80s and 90s, has since long ago put down her pen. She is far more than dejected – she is annoyed and bitter at the way women are portrayed in television dramas today. While her own plays showed women as professionals, who lived their lives to the fullest, with various shades in their characters, today’s dramas have resorted to showing women confined inside their homes, always weeping, and almost never professional.

“Women are being demeaned and insulted in the characters they are given,” says Ms Moin. “I would blame both writers and the actresses who play these but most of all I blame channels for doing this,” she says. “These dramas have no respect for language either – they have glorified third rate language, and have forgotten how civilized people speak to each other – all for making quick bucks.”

Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2019