Fashion and feminism today have a very problematic relationship. In earlier feminist movements, dress and fashion were a means of rejecting social expectations. Whereas women today subject themselves to waxing, high heels, and cosmetic surgery, things were much worst all the way back to the eighteenth century. Fashion then, was a sign of privilege, wealth, and social class. High-class women dressed in silks and taffeta, wore itchy (and unbearably hot) powdered wigs, whitened their faces, reddened their lips, wore pinching shoes, and wore tight corsets and alarmingly large hoop-dresses. All this indicated that you were a wealthy, noble, and high-born woman. Such things were unimaginable for lower-class peasant women. Feminism sought to remove these customs, and do away with torturous corsets and whitening powder, so as to shift away from the expectation of what women must look like.
As second-wave feminism sought to prove that gender was social, and sex biological, feminists adopted gender-neutral modes of dress. While bra-burnings may be a bit of an exaggeration, feminists did go bra-less, in men’s shirts and chunky shoes. As unattractive as it may seem, it must be remembered that second-wave feminists were not just fighting gender violence and inequity, but also sought to emancipate women from being the playthings of men.
As liberation through fashion continued through the 90s, things took a turn for (according to some) the worst. Whereas earlier feminists sought to put an end to female objectification, women now sought to liberate themselves through current fashions and trends. The 90s show Ally McBeal is sometimes praised for presenting a career-woman who wears mini-skirts and actively dates men, to criticizing how the title character internalizes patriarchy in order to validate her own submissiveness in the face of misogynist stereotypes such as remaining single, unwed, or childless.
Pakistan is not new to fashion or superficial cosmetics. In “Royal Mughal Ladies and Their Contributions”, Soma Mukherjee describes how Mughal women, including concubines, slaves, princesses, their female relatives, etc. lived in the lap of luxury in the zanana. The royal ladies mostly spent their time by adorning, decorating, and beautifying themselves,” she writes, and further goes on to describe that the most honoured woman was the one who gave the king his first male child, and that the more importance she held, the more privileges she held. But while we know that Mughal women lived a lavish lifestyle, how were they able to do so when they were not allowed to go outside the zanana and work?
Portrait of a Mughal woman, bedecked in jewels and expensive clothes.
Mukherjee explains that their main source of income was allowances and pensions given to them by the king and other royal princes. They also owned jagirs, properties, all gifted to them by the royal men of course. They would also frequently receive gifts of precious stones, pearls and diamonds and gold, exotic silks and royal cloth, perfumed oils, toys and cabinets and rare items. Often, ambassadors from other lands and diplomats would give the royal women precious gifts in order to curry favour with the king. Mukherjee paints a vivid picture not of the lives of Mughal women, but rather, that they were little more than playthings for men. They were ancient Barbies, living in their dollhouse, decorating it, decorating themselves, living in the lap of luxury, content to stay within those four walls, used as a means to an end by all men. The main source of importance for a woman was to bear the king a male child. Imagine the life of the king then, with his concubines and wives and secondary wives always clambering to have sex with him!
Feminists did not initially take Pakistan’s fashion industry very seriously. Specifically, during the rise of fashion in Pakistan in the 80s, feminists did not speak against fashion because military dictator Zia-ul-Haq was against the fashion industry for obvious reasons. When feminists were fighting the Hudood Ordinance and burning their dupattas in defiance of Zia-ul-Haq’s barbaric Islamization, how could they possibly speak against the fashion industry when it was defying the dictator in the same way?
Members of Women’s Action Forum, Lahore burning their dupattas.
It was detrimental to their cause then to speak against fashion, but in recent times, feminists have started speaking against it. Karachi feminist Abira Ashfaq writes in a blog titled Blood Cotton,
A lawn suit bought at Gul Ahmed for Rs. 4,000 could equal 100 working days of a woman in rural Sindh. Add to that her malnutrition, lack of education and social safety nets, and exposure to pesticide. Add to that the contamination in food and water and how that affects the health and prospects of even the children.
It’s not lawn, it’s blood cotton.
Within Pakistan, the fashion industry exists in its purest form, where dress and cosmetics are a symbol of your social status. Middle-class women now clamber to buy the infamous lawn dresses which take the country by storm each summer, so as to portray themselves as moderately wealthy. Lawn suits tend to cost Rs.5000 and upwards; some designer lawn even costs as much as Rs. 20,000! Interestingly, the fashion industry in Pakistan also claims to combat terrorism by projecting a progressive view of the country, a country which has a thriving fashion industry, holds its own fashion week, and has multitudes of talented designers and stylists.
Unfortunately, all of that is utter bullshit.
Fashion in Pakistan is vastly elitist and privileged. There is absolutely no denying it at all. Whether being trendy and stylish is anti-feminist or not is a separate matter; one can dress sharp on low budgets as well, and depending on which perspectives of feminism you adhere to, it can either be anti-feminist or feminist. But to follow high-class fashion, to wear designer lawn, buy only from boutiques, shop at large malls is an indication of wealth and social class. And Pakistan’s elites are nothing if not status-conscious.
Furthermore, the entire process of beautifying yourself is not just privileged, but it also oppresses other women. The Mughal women oppressed their slaves, who would dab perfumed oils and dress them and place their jewelry on their body, all the beautiful luxuries that they did not have because they were poor. Today, we have women cutting and filing our nails, cleaning our feet, massaging our hair by the roots to ensure growth, applying expensive creams on our face for facials, and basically decorating women with all the things they don’t have.
A common and popular facial in salons is Dermalogica. It costs up to but not ending at, Rs. 5000. Minimum price is normally 3000. 2500 if its a cleansing and not a facial.
A young girl working in a salon or parlour could never afford a Rs. 1200 manicure, or a Rs. 5000 facial, and these are standard prices I’m quoting. You’re not just pandering to superficial standards of beauty, you’re also oppressing other women with your privilege. Give yourself a round of applause for being a horrible person.
Gotta love the smell of privilege in the air.
All this is what makes this photo shoot particularly disgusting. Titled “The 5 Stages of Getting Hitched,” this fashion shoot by Karma seems to aim at satirizing the obviously ridiculous wedding ceremonies and customs in Pakistan. The first photo mocks how the wedding ring is Kryptonite, with the bride holding a giant green chunk of Kryptonite. While the image would work better if the bride was wearing a large rock on her finger as opposed to holding it, the indication is obvious, and even amusing.
The second photo is somewhat neutral- titled Mehndi, the sweets that are too sweet, the bride is holding a stack of mithayi boxes, as feeding brides a spoonful of sweetmeats is customary at wedding ceremony. These mithayis by the way, are sickeningly sweet; many people now opt for keeping Smarties in a bowl, or even cupcakes, which are significantly less sweet in comparison.
The third is of the nikkah ceremony, titled “the pre-nup that is too long.” Here’s where things get problematic. Pre-nuptial agreements are not a bad thing. They are definitely not a bad thing in a country where the law is seldom on your side and women are treated as inferior even in educated families. (thereby proving a separate point that misogyny is not mutually exclusive of social class or level of education) So if you take a photograph of a bride signing piles of paper, that’s a good thing. It doesn’t indicate mistrust. It indicates security. It indicates that you’re going to be fine if your husband dies and the family blames you for cursing them. Or if your husband takes to drinking and beating you. Or if you have no idea that the sweet man you’re marrying will torture you and keep you from seeing your family. Or, let’s repeat here, that your husband will beat you. Because that happens far too much in Pakistan, and too few women get to escape such marriages.
Now all of this aside, here’s the real problem with this photo; pre-nups do not exist in Pakistan. The only document signed in Pakistani weddings is the nikahnama, which is the marriage contract, not a prenuptial agreement! The concept of this photo thus defies all logic when the only contract signed in Pakistan is one which cements the marriage itself. Moreover, even if someone does decide to have a prenuptial agreement, the fact is that a) even affluent, privileged women in Pakistan have precious little to their own name other than the jewels they receive upon marriage and their inheritance, if they ever get their hands on it that is and b) Considering that “Of the 49.5 million illiterate adults in Pakistan, again, two-thirds are women, the third highest rate in the world” are we really deluded enough to think that majority of women in Pakistan are empowered enough to demand a prenuptial agreement from their prospective in-laws?
The fourth image is again, amusing. Titled “The rice that is too abundant”, the bride is standing next to sacks of rice, as it’s a Punjabi custom (rooted in Hinduism, I’ve been told) for the bride to throw rice before entering her new home, as an indication of fertility. Considering that we live in a country with many people living below the poverty line, I’m not really sure why we want to waste food in such a manner, but okay then. Regardless, the photo actually indicates how ridiculous that custom is.
And then comes the utterly brilliant (not) fifth photo; “The flower that has been deflowered.” The valima ceremony follows the wedding night or rukhsati, and is apparently a celebration of the marriage being consummated. If you’ve seen cheesily decorated flowery beds on the wedding night in Bollywood movies, it is not at all an exaggeration. (How one has sex with rose petals sticking all over you is beyond my comprehension. Personally, I’d worry about beetles and creepy-crawlies biting in awkward places but that’s just me)
No matter what your social class, financial status, level of education, or family background, if you are a woman born in Pakistan, you will be told since childhood that your body is a pearl to be protected in an oyster shell, a lollipop to remain covered so as not to get dirty, a temple to be worshipped by the perfect man i.e. your husband, and so on and so forth. Even if you belong to a “liberal” family where your father does not dictate how you dress and your mother doesn’t tell you that you look like a slut in sleeveless dresses, that does not change the fact that you will be objectified beyond repair, that your seemingly liberal parents would throw you out of the house for either dating or for getting pregnant, that a woman’s “chastity” will eternally be tied to the honour and noble name of the family, and the mythical burdens of family honour and respect.
Also in Pakistan, we like to sell women off in marriage frequently. Mostly, we sell them off to settle debts and feuds. Most of the time we don’t care how young they are. Let me point out here that if you get your sixteen-year-old daughter married off, that still counts as marrying off a minor, and it IS child abuse to thrust a young teenager into the bewildering world of marriage and “wifely duties.” And considering how often women are married off against their will, many suffer the trauma of getting raped on their wedding night. A sixteen-year-old child-bride is going to confusedly ask what her husband is doing by undressing, and will scream at being brutishly used, and that IS spousal rape. And it is common. It is much more common than you may think, and more real than you realize.
Moreover, we sadly live in ancient, barbaric times, and our men are encouraged to emerge from the bedroom and victoriously display bloodied bed sheets as a sign of the bride’s virginity. I can tell you one thing for sure; bleeding the first time you have sex is not mandatory. It may be painful and awkward, but many women do not bleed if their husbands or boyfriends are careful and considerate. If however, you ravage a virgin, she IS going to bleed and it is going to hurt and it will be traumatic to have your body violated and it WILL be rape. And this happens more frequently than we realize. We a as a nation are very used to saying, “Oh, these things happen in middle and lower classes where they do not have education or awareness.” A close friend of mine from one of the most prestigious and elite schools in Lahore told me about how his classmates would victoriously crow about how their girlfriends bled during sex, and those boys would bring their friends home and show them the blood stains on their sheets with great pride. Please note, these were rich, privileged young men from “good” families, families with social and financial stability and studying in a top elitist school. So much for the lower classes being barbaric only, eh?
(And when you defend your social class by saying that just a few terrible young men are not representative of a class, let me just point out that while you’re correct, I never said that they’re representative of a class, I used the example to illustrate the point that by claiming that “in our families, these things do not happen, it’s in lower classes or low middle class families who have less education and awareness that these things happen”, you’re simply deflecting the issue at hand and honestly, putting your own future female generations at risk by perpetuating the illusion that if you’re educated, you are not capable of brutality, rape, and violent behavior)
When you take this factor into consideration, you cannot deny that the deflowered flower photograph IS a rape joke, it’s attempting to satirize the idea of a virgin meant to be ravaged, deflowered, brutalized, raped on her wedding night, and as such, simply cannot be subverted in any logical way!
Referring to the image as “the flower that is deflowered” is perpetuating the mentality that a woman should be chaste and beautiful like a flower, only to be “deflowered” by her noble knight in shining armour husband. The title also ignores the reality of spousal rape, and ignores how many women suffer from domestic abuse. This is not a satirical take on how ridiculous all the hullabaloo over the wedding night is. It is a privileged view of women and sex, ignoring the suffering of women who don’t have daddy’s credit cards and uncle’s FIA contacts to live off of. Most women are raped on their wedding night, raped for many nights for the rest of their life, and there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. And women, all women, are NOT delicate flowers to be presented as a gift or treasure. A woman’s virginity is no one’s matter but her own, and a woman should be free to make her own choices about her body, whether that means remaining a virgin till she marries, or being sexually active. No matter how offensive or immoral you find this, you cannot impose your perceptions upon all women. You cannot view women in black and white. Some women are virgins and some are sexually active but that is no indication of what sort of people they are, nor is it anyone’s business.
Consider this; in red-light districts, a girl’s virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder. In “decent and moral families” a girl’s virginity is sold to the highest bidder also. And if the girl of this decent family is not a virgin, then she will not “find a good match” according to her family, and be disgraced socially and called a whore. First of all, this approach is dehumanizing to sex-workers. You can criticize the sex industry, I certainly do, but you can do so without dehumanizing women. Secondly, what’s the point of demeaning a woman by calling her a prostitute (and thereby demeaning sex-workers by using prostitute as an insult) when your customs and traditions were prostituting her the same way that women are “whored out” in a red-light district? Let me remind you here, lest you find my claims ridiculous, that the marriage contract asks if the woman is “divorced, widowed, or a maiden.”
The artist behind the styling and concept is even more disappointing than the shoot itself. She defended the photo and caption with “the whole shoot is challenging the stereotypes that are set forth.” But the problem is, she hasn’t challenged the stereotypes. Challenging the stereotypes would mean that the model doesn’t look beautiful and holds white flowers in her hand and ethereal white flowers in her hair. Challenging the stereotypes would mean showing the model dressed in darker colours, to indicate that there’s nothing joyful in a woman’s chastity being considered to be a symbol of respect. Maybe she could have looked less happy. Maybe the flowers could have been black or dead. Perhaps the artist would argue that this makes it too obvious, but really, what is the current photo portraying? You don’t need to identify as a feminist to be disgusted by this, not by a long shot.
Here’s where it gets worst; the artist actually deleted comments criticizing the photo. For an artist to censor disagreement with their concept is just so baffling and antithetical, I don’t even have the verbal finesse to articulate it into written words. Moreover, the artist is actually a feminist. That’s what makes me sad. Even if you’re a feminist who believes in fashion liberating women, defending this photo makes absolutely zero sense. If anything, the entire concept panders to patriarchy and stereotypes, rather than defy it.
I’m not sure why I’m so disappointed or disgusted. Fashion tends to leave me with a bad taste in my mouth anyway. But this really pushes a limit. It isn’t just misogynist, but it’s also the view from a privileged little bubble. And it is very dangerous to live in such a bubble. It is easy to fall prey to shallow superficialities if you’re born into privilege, but while you’re not to blame for the conditions you were born into, you are to blame for not acknowledging that privilege, and for continuing to see the world from a bubble.
To all those reading this, here’s my idea. Boycott Karma. Boycott Damas jewelers. Hell, boycott the artist and her salon. Because women who get expensive mani-pedis and stylish up-dos for a night out and gelish nail treatments, all on a regular basis, are women who actually hate feminists a lot, so I highly doubt I’m committing defamation or damaging the artist’s business by calling for a boycott. But if you’re a feminist who likes to get an OPI manicure every now and then (and I know I certainly do, the coffee manicure at Bina Khan is just to die for, and I love that she posted a status on her FB page commenting on the ridiculous whitening cream phenomenon some time back) or who gets a protein treatment for damaged hair at just any small salon, and don’t need for these treatments to be expensive or fancy as long as they get the job done, then opt for a different salon, and a different stylist. I know I would, but I’m silly this way, my principles unfortunately matter to me quite a bit.