SPOTLIGHT: INSPIRING WOMEN

Published March 3, 2024
Photography & styling: The Rohail | Hair & make-up: Nabila’s | Location courtesy: Aura Multibrand Store | Concept & coordination: Umer Mushtaq
Photography & styling: The Rohail | Hair & make-up: Nabila’s | Location courtesy: Aura Multibrand Store | Concept & coordination: Umer Mushtaq

Stories dedicated to Women’s Day tend to be littered with certain catchphrases. There is talk about breaking glass ceilings, smashing the patriarchy and making a mark in a man’s world. While these phrases are all true, they are also so ubiquitous that they seem downright generic. There are, after all, far more creative ways of describing and celebrating the achievements of women.

This year, for instance, Icon has zeroed in on six diverse women whose distinctive achievements simply shouldn’t be summed up with the aid of overused adjectives. With their creative visions, entrepreneurial skills and empathy, they are all trailblazers who stand out and who, in fact, prove that, while many may make sweeping statements about this being a man’s world, it is also very much a woman’s world!

Masarrat Misbah

Beauty, inside and out, is quite literally intertwined in Masarrat Misbah’s unique journey. She launched Depilex 43 years ago — a beauty salon and institute which has now expanded to a veritable empire, with branches dotted all about the country. Twenty years ago, she initiated the Depilex Smileagain Foundation, dedicated to empowering survivors of acid attacks.

While the salon is dedicated to glamour and high-end fashion collaborations, the foundation peers beyond surface images, healing the victims that take shelter within it, providing them with vocational training and steering them towards lives where they ‘smile again’. With passion, skill and genuine empathy, Masarrat and her longstanding team have been successfully balancing these two somewhat paradoxical sides to the realm of beauty.

Six powerful women and six life stories that can inspire and motivate and which challenge stereotypes in their own individual ways. To celebrate International Women’s Day, Icon sits down with six trailblazers to gain insight into their lives and careers

“It is mandatory for every Depilex franchise to employ at least two acid burn victims,” says Masarrat. “We also help our trainees in setting up small at-home salons, through which they can begin earning. For those who are not interested in beauty courses, we arrange different training programs for them and then help them in setting up businesses for themselves that they can operate online or with the aid of their families.

“For some who want to learn more, we also arrange advanced classes. The aim is to make them financially independent to some extent. It is essential, because it leads to self-confidence and eventually helps them earn respect for themselves in their households.”

She continues: “There are women who endure physical abuse in their homes and there are many others who are mentally tortured, blamed for perhaps not having brought in enough dowry or not being able to give birth to sons. This is why, from the day that I started my salon, I would very willingly impart all my knowledge to the girls who came to work with me.

“I felt that, even if these women were able to contribute a meagre amount to their households, they would slowly begin earning the respect of their families. They may at some point be able to ensure that their say matters in their homes.”

Does she also feel that her gender has helped her in becoming an integral part of Pakistan’s beauty industry? “The field always has been dominated primarily by females so, yes, I suppose it was easier to operate alongside a group of women who were all pushing forward their stances on beauty,” she says. “Gender, though, was never an issue for me. The beauty industry has always been one that has been accepting and welcoming to all who have gravitated towards it, regardless of whether they were male or female.”

Referring to her own decision of covering her head, Masarrat adds, “My decision to cover my head was a personal, religious one. However, once I had done so, I realised that I was able to communicate more easily with the victims and their families who I met through Smileagain. Earlier, they perceived me as someone from another world. ‘What would madam know?’ they would suggest. Now, somehow, the victims and particularly the male members of their households, were connecting with me more easily.”

“Of course, how a woman dresses should not be the standard by which she is judged,” she points out. “Thankfully, there is growing awareness. We have more women activists and entrepreneurs functioning in prominent roles and the pressure to conform to certain societal norms is decreasing.”

Shamaeel Ansari

Shamaeel Ansari’s design aesthetic has always been fierce and individualistic — it is synonymous with the woman that she is. With a career that spans 37 years, Shamaeel belongs to the designer entourage that first laid the foundation stones of fashion in Pakistan.

I have earned a reputation of being a monster at events — it’s because I have to be the bad cop so that things get done. There will be times when I will be helming an event and my show director will come to me and ask me to assert myself. If I don’t show people that I mean business, they will simply take me lightly.” — Frieha Altaf

Armed with a background in finance and corporate law and with a strong creative streak, she has paved a path that has veered from apparel to developing home textiles and catering, and from a loyal local clientele to a consistent export business.

Her trajectory can quite literally be utilised to form a timeline tabulating the evolution of Pakistani fashion. From founding her high-end luxury label back in 1987, Shamaeel forged ahead with solo fashion shows and exhibits around the world, dabbling with lawn, ready-to-wear, luxury-wear and bridals, mentoring up-and-coming designers and chairing the Karachi-based Fashion Pakistan Council for some time.

Some of the most memorable benchmarks set by Shamaeel are reminiscent of Pakistani fashion’s heydays. Her Orient Express show back in the early ’90s, for instance, took place at the Karachi Railway Station, with models making an entry on an old steam engine.In yet another memorable solo outing, back in 2017, Shamaeel opened up her home to a select guest list, setting up installations in different rooms, drawing on Turkish history for inspiration.

“From about 1987 to 1998, I would be showcasing my collections in solo shows,” recalls Shamaeel. “I think that I am possibly the only Pakistani designer to have staged so many solo fashion shows. Maintaining a distinctive creative signature with my brand has always been very important to me but, at the same time, I am a businesswoman. I have navigated ups and downs and overseen every aspect on my own, ranging from production to the advertising aspects to retail, sampling, finance, research and export. It goes to show that with the right education and motivation, a woman can run a business just as well as a man.”

She continues: “Simultaneously, I have always been very willing to train others. As chairperson of the Fashion Pakistan Council, I would try my best to encourage promising new designers and I also regularly work with the Hunar Foundation, training the girls there on designing fabric products.”

Shamaeel adds, “A love for fabric and texture runs in my genealogy. My great-grandfather had been one of the very first men to manufacture and retail pure silk in Mysore, India. Personally, even while I studied finance, I enjoyed visiting museums, reading about cultures and history and, eventually, taking inspiration from them when I turned my eye towards fashion design.

“As a result, my collections have always been rich in history, inspired by works of art and literature, carefully curated to exude regality and individual expression. In these 37 years, I feel happy that I have not let my signature get diluted. When a woman walks in wearing my design and it prompts the people around her to recognise it as ‘A Shamaeel’, I consider it quite an achievement!” she smiles.

Frieha Altaf

Some time ago, Frieha Altaf was featured on the cover of a local magazine where she was shown shaving her face. ‘Who’s the man?’ read the caption, asserting that Frieha, one of Pakistani fashion and entertainment’s most powerful movers and shakers, was very much ‘a man’. Looking back upon the cover, Frieha is regretful.

“I think about the cover and wonder why I agreed to do it,” she says. “I don’t consider it to be a compliment when people say that I am like a man. Yes, I have worked hard on my career, I have tried to survive and, in the process, I have achieved certain milestones. Still, I’d rather be called a tough, strong woman — an Iron Lady, even — than being likened to a man.

“I am very feminine. I enjoy dressing up. I have my female friends. But, yes, in order to be taken seriously and to deliver, I have often had to be aggressive, assertive.” She laughs, “I have earned a reputation of being a monster at events — it’s because I have to be the bad cop so that things get done.

“There will be times when I will be helming an event and my show director will come to me and ask me to assert myself because the labour isn’t working or the actors who are part of the show aren’t coming on time. If I don’t show people that I mean business, they will simply take me lightly.”

And Frieha, of course, is not a woman to be taken lightly. From back in the mid ’80s, when she started off her career as a model and advertising executive, to the present day, as one of the country’s foremost event managers, her achievements are endless.

The Lux Style Awards, the country’s longest standing awards show dedicated to fashion and entertainment, emerged with her vision back in 2002 and continued to be directed by her for 19 years. She has also produced and directed countless other awards ceremonies, TV shows, beauty pageants and fashion shows. To date, she continues to be associated with some of the most ambitious, most talked-about projects in Pakistani fashion and entertainment. She is also a strong advocate for women’s rights, vocally denouncing cases of domestic abuse and harassment through press conferences and street ‘marches’.

To get things done, Frieha realised early on that she would have to tackle the misogynistic mindsets regarding working women that are rampant in Pakistan.

“When I started modelling, it wasn’t considered a respectable profession in the country,” she recalls. “My family didn’t think there was anything wrong with it and nor did I. My sister and brother-in-law were also modelling and fashion, emerging as a creative, artistic industry, excited us. Still, the people around me — even men from well-educated backgrounds — would comment that my pictures were plastered on the walls of paan shops. It was insinuated that proposals would not come my way and that I would never get married.”

She continues: “Then, when I started my career as an event manager, I was literally running a one-woman show. I would personally arrange NOCs and have meetings with the tax department and, once, I remember designer Maheen Khan lent me a chaadar when I had to go to the court to get an NOC.

“And then, because I was female, people would sometimes assume that they could swindle me. There have been plenty of ups and downs, a lot of undignified experiences but, through all of it, it was important to keep trudging on, to believe in myself and to surround myself with people who believed in me too.”

Despite her many achievements, does she think that she would have been more successful had she been a man? “Definitely,” she says. “As a working woman in Pakistan, I have to maintain a certain professional demeanour and maintain a distance which wouldn’t have been necessary had I been a man.

“I have constantly created new events throughout my career and started off people’s careers but, despite all this, there have been times when I have encountered the attitude that I am just a woman, all alone, what can I possibly achieve?

“And to have met these attitudes head-on and to still manage to do so much as a woman in Pakistan, makes me very happy,” says Frieha. “I hope that I have paved the way for more women to enter the field and given them the confidence that they, too, can fulfil their ambitions and be successful.”

Ronak Lakhani

Thirty-four-odd years ago, Ronak Lakhani turned her focus towards children with special needs. She founded Special Olympics Pakistan (SOP), utilising sports as a platform which would transform their lives, give them confidence and teach them to fend for themselves.

Since then, her commitment to the organisation has been unwavering. SOP has mushroomed into an organisation with offices in Pakistan’s main urban centres — Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad — providing physical and mental rehabilitation to children with mental disabilities and then, channelling their energy and setting goals for them with the aid of sports.

Ronak recounts: “There was this girl, Sana, who came to us from Mirpurkhas. Her family had kept her chained up at home for years when they would go off to work. If they didn’t, she would run out into the fields. She just had all this energy and didn’t know what to do with it. It made me so proud that, last year, she represented Pakistan at the Special Olympics World Games in Berlin, as one of the seven torchbearers at the opening ceremony.

“So many more of our athletes have won medals, travelled the world and received training and emerged as youth leaders, sports directors and mentors to others,” says Ronak. “Only recently, one of our athletes has returned from a training at the Special Olympics head office in D.C. He was accompanied by another athlete who wasn’t differently abled.

“One of our main objectives has always been to promote inclusivity. If there are 10 athletes in our football team, six might be mentally challenged while four won’t be. We are currently aligned with 45 schools across Pakistan, so that the athletes from SOP play alongside youth with normal abilities.”

She continues: “We realised early on how a lot of times the families of children with mental disabilities are unable to pinpoint their medical needs. Recently, a 17-year-old boy came to us who couldn’t see and his family had assumed that this was because he had Down’s Syndrome. When he got his eyes screened through special tests run by the Layton Rahmatulla Benevolent Trust [LRBT], it was discovered that he had cataracts in both his eyes. We got the cataracts removed and now the boy can see clearly. We are similarly aligned with a number of hospitals so that we can ensure that the children associated with the SOP are healthy.”

Additionally, Ronak serves as a vice-chairperson in the non-profit organisation Network of Organisations Working for People with Disabilities Pakistan (NOWPDP) and as the president of the Sindh Women’s Association, which encourages the participation of women in swimming competitions within Pakistan as well as internationally.

“NOWPDP has been doing some amazing work, ensuring that physically challenged people get jobs and are able to support themselves financially.” Referring to her work with the Sindh Women’s Association, she adds, “I feel that the association has been instrumental in supporting and promoting some very talented female swimmers, who have gone on to represent Pakistan globally. It was formed 30 years ago and is now a part of the Pakistan Swimming Federation.”

Has Ronak ever felt that she has had to maintain a certain demeanour in order to connect easily with the people who turn to her for aid? “There was a time when people around me advised me to perhaps take off my jewellery and wear simpler clothes while interacting with the children and the families that we try to help through SOP,” she says.

“However, I did not want to change who I was. I wanted to convey that, regardless of how I dressed, my intentions were sincere and I was there to help them however I could. And thankfully, I have observed that I am able to gain the trust of the families of special needs children that I meet.”

Sarwat Gillani

Sarwat Gillani marches to her own drumbeat. Unlike many of her peers in the acting industry, she doesn’t sign on to multiple projects just in order to ensure visibility. She eschews TV drama scripts that don’t inspire her, even though they may have all the ingredients that would ensure commercial success.

She’d rather weather criticism — and win critical acclaim — with scripts that are few and far between but which allow her to explore her acting abilities. She’d also rather wait it out for these scripts, dividing the rest of her time between motherhood, philanthropy and ad campaigns.

“TV hasn’t attracted me for the past seven years,” Sarwat says, “basically because the scripts that have been offered to me didn’t really give me any margin to perform. It’s why I have gravitated more towards series created for OTT platforms and films that have unique stories.”

Those films, Sarwat knows, often end up getting banned from Pakistani cinemas — or heavily censored, at least. “Yes! Those are the films that tend to attract me,” she laughs.

Does she not fear that her infrequent acting appearances will eventually lead to the audience forgetting her? “Fortunately, that hasn’t happened yet,” she says, “perhaps because I am also seen in quite a few TV commercials. But regardless, I feel that, as an actor, I have a responsibility towards myself and towards society, to be part of stories that are more than about a 20-something girl getting married.”

The work timings and travel requirements of an acting career can be difficult to manage and with three young children — Sarwat and husband Fahad Mirza’s third child, their daughter, was born in December last year — how is she able to multitask between home and work?

“I have always been very organised,” she says. “I plan and I pre-plan and I have schedules mapped out months in advance. I grew up in a family where the women were all great mothers and wives as well as professionals. I have just never considered not getting work done as an option. Of course, I have family helping me out and, even when I am in the middle of a really hectic schedule, I know where my children are and what they are doing.”

Sarwat is also associated with a number of philanthropic endeavours, such as the Indus Hospital, the Child Protection Bureau and the SOP, where she is on board as Brand Ambassador. Does she feel that her gender allows her to relate more easily with the people who turn to these organisations for aid?

“I don’t think that philanthropy has anything to do with gender,” she observes. “A lot of times, I have felt that people are venting out to me more easily, perhaps because they have seen me playing the long-suffering bahu in some TV drama and they are able to connect with that! I do feel, though, that the more celebrities align themselves with causes, the more awareness can be generated about them. People just relate to celebrities more easily.”

Maha Sheikh

Maha Sheikh has frequently been the only woman in all-male committees. It has never deterred her from making herself heard or from making sure that her dreams come true. The dreams are quite diverse: Maha moonlights as a fashion designer creating customised bridal-wear while also heading the multi-designer store Aura Embracing Elegance, located in Karachi’s Khyaban-i-Ittehad commercial area, and acting as CEO of Asmar Group, specialising in paint and textures.

“I love colours and both paint and fashion design are deeply reliant on colours. If I can dress up a bride, I can also dress up a building,” says Maha, explaining her two very different career paths.

But still, I insist to her, how did she gravitate towards two such different lines of work? She says, “Throughout my life, my biggest source of encouragement has been my father. He has guided me and always told me to aim high. I graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology [FIT], New York, back in 2001 and I immediately launched my fashion brand.

“I showcased my ready-to-wear in Germany and, since then, I have participated in fashion shows and exhibits both within Pakistan as well as internationally. I make yearly work trips to the US and Canada, and now have a steady clientele there, not just for ready-to-wear but also bespoke wedding-wear.”

She continues: “And then, a few years ago, my father was exporting paint to Afghanistan and I suggested to him that there was a lot of potential within the Pakistani market for the retail of high-end paint and textures. Eventually, this led me to diversify and a lot of what I learnt as a fashion student — block printing, screen printing, mixing different textures — can also be applied to paint. The CEO Club Pakistan awarded me the Top CEO trophy for Pakistan in 2023.

“In addition, I am an active participant in different committees. I am the only female member of the Association of Builders and Developers of Pakistan (ABAD), and was also the convener of the Pakistan Youth Committee in the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industries (FPCCI). There have been a lot of times when I have functioned in rooms full of men, being the only woman there.”

And it never perturbs her? “No,” she tells me. “I am generally a calm person. I sit and I listen to people and, when the right time comes, I make sure that my opinion is heard. I have also always made sure that I exude confidence, opting for subtle clothes and refraining from dramatic make-up or hair. I wouldn’t say that it’s difficult coping in a world dominated by men but, living in Pakistan, we know the mindsets that we will be encountering and it can be challenging.”

Organising and pre-planning has played a major role in Maha’s career growth. “I am married with a son and I feel I have more time to aim for all the goals that I have set for myself. I want to open a multi-designer store in the UAE. I am currently involved in a project that will lead to the building of budget houses for people living on the streets. I have so many plans and I am well on my way to achieving them.”

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 3rd, 2024

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