'Is My Shirt Long Enough?': Artist Shehzil Malik launches Pakistan's first feminist fashion line

Arts

Women in Public Spaces I

Shehzil Malik says there is no simple answer to how to manage being a woman. She drew this comic to achieve catharsis after having experienced countless episodes of harassment in her local park. "You can't rationalize the fear that very genuinely exists when you step outside," says Malik.

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Women in Public Spaces II

Malik finds it unjust to be held back by unalterable facts such as being a woman or a Pakistani. "This is the only time we have to live our lives, and life is too short and the world is too beautiful to stay indoors and rob yourself of the magic that waits for you. I am determined to have my day in the sun."

Arts

Brown is Beautiful

Many Pakistanis consider dark skin to be an undesirable trait. In her teens, Shehzil battled with a sense of inferiority to her light-skinned counterparts, regularly drawing comfort from a skin-whitening cream later revealed to contain strong toxins. In college, when she met powerful women from all over the world, she realized that that beauty comes in all shapes, sizes and colors.

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Desi Wonder Woman

Visuals that represent who we are or aspire to be change the way we perceive ourselves. Malik says that if she had grown up with bold women of color as role models, she would have realized earlier that her potential went beyond the Pakistani conventions she was raised with. "If you didn't see a brown badass female superhero growing up, how'd you know if it were possible?"

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Hijabi Biker Girl

The illustration was inspired by a girl in Malik's neighborhood whom she saw learning to ride a motorbike. The image was blown up to 11 feet and pasted onto a wall in Lahore. "I was curious about the reactions it would get, but the next day it had disappeared," says Malik. "The removal of the biker girl has opened up new questions about street art in Pakistan and how women are seen in public."

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Bookworm Sister

One of Malik's favorites from the collection, this illustration is of her younger sister, whom Malik credits as a source of knowledge, kindness and inspiration. "This is a tribute to women who read, women who add to our knowledge, women who teach us to be better."

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There is no one way to be a woman

"Needlessly, our bodies are sites of political expression," says Malik, who created this illustration after France placed a ban on the burkini, the full body beachwear preferred by some Muslim women. "When I look at my friends who wear the hijab, I see women with a strong sense of self who are open-minded to my differing views and take responsibility for their decisions."

Arts

Step Out!

After drawing about women in public spaces, Shehzil Malik's project "Step Out!" includes artwork and photographs that show women taking ownership of the city. Posing in this image from Malik's shoot for her feminist fashion line made in collaboration with the clothing retailer Generation is the fashion model Eman Suleman.

In a male-dominated society, a new, homegrown fashion line defies feminine stereotypes. While these images may empower women, class divides limit their effect.

"It feels like all over the world, whether it is telling women to take their clothes off or to put more on: the power of what is appropriate to wear seems to lie with patriarchal society and not with women themselves," says Shehzil Malik, a 30 year-old Pakistani digital artist.

The 2016 French burkini ban struck Malik as a particularly offensive piece of legislation – a painful confirmation of the global surveillance of women's bodies.

To give women "ownership over what they wear," Malik launched Pakistan's first feminist fashion collection in October 2017. Her designs depict characters who "push the boundaries of what it means to be a Pakistani woman."

Some of these women wear scarves, some have flowing hair; some are dark-skinned, some fair-skinned; some are tattooed, others bejeweled; some ride bikes and others read books. They all command respect. "These are women who hold your gaze unapologetically," says Malik.

Shehzil Malik, pakistanische Künstlerin

Lavish use of color is part of Shehzil Malik's aesthetic

Role models in art

Malik's artistic journey began in 2015 when she started creating illustrations – often in a vibrant and dazzling GIF format – on the theme of women's experiences in public spaces.

One illustration of a girl walking down a street went viral. Dragged down by the voyeuristic gaze of sleazy men, her insecurities and inner monologues are written across her clothes: 'Is my shirt not long enough?', 'Is my chest covered?' Throughout her ordeal, she reminds herself to 'just...keep...walking.'

After Malik posted the image on her blog "Notes to Self," it struck a chord with women who shared her inner monologues all over the world "in Pakistan, India, Germany, in the UK and US." Inspired by the artwork and equally tired of the arbitrary way dress codes determined their place in society, they told their own stories. 

Realizing that her art could inspire and empower women to assert themselves in public life, "I wanted to make pictures of women that you could look at and think, 'Oh, she's a Pakistani girl, and she's very comfortable in her own skin. I wish I could be like that!' Because that's what I'm kind of drawing for myself – I give myself these role models in art," says Malik.

"As a woman who had grown up on Western pop culture" but was not represented in it, Malik developed a visual language that reflected the global dimension of the Pakistani experience. Cross-dressing cultural icons across the East-West divide, Malik imagined Wonder Woman as a brown-skinned girl and a famous Pakistani folk singer in the signature glam-rock look of the band Kiss.

Pakistan Lahore Werk der Künstlerin Shehzil Malik

Sometimes the clothing in Malik's illustrations points to the ambiguities in the situation of its wearer

Empowering women through fashion

In her essay on feminism and fashion, Nigerian writer and researcher Varyanne Sika outlines how dress and fashion shape social identity: "Getting dressed every day is a compulsory, non-negotiable activity for most people; we can hardly ever exercise our preferences on the matter, writes Sika. "Instead, we decide how to execute the dressing process."

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At the same time, she adds, fashion, whether in urban or rural areas, is one of many symbols of class distinctions in a society that "divides women into those who can afford to interact with it and those who cannot."

Selling at prices from $10-50, the pieces in Shehzil's line at the fashion company "Generation" are likely to be worn by women who already enjoy a certain level of class protection when they enter public spaces. Moreover, the collection's limited release creates an air of exclusivity that might appeal to customers' sense of individuality while undercutting the universal message typically found in Malik's artwork.

'An 11-foot woman, looming over a bike onto the bridge'

Malik suffers no delusions about fashion-driven social change, acknowledging the "difficulty of having conversations about public spaces in Pakistan without realizing the class differences that exist here."

Shehzil Malik, pakistanische Künstlerin

Shehzil Malik's designs often show the bustle of urban life

Not wanting her characters to be limited to retail shops and billboards, Malik decided to bring them to the streets as part of a graffiti project. Under a bridge in her native Lahore, she found a space where people "from all walks of life are found, from the hustle and bustle of the shops to the pedestrians, bikes and cars that make their way through the city," says Malik.

With help from her sister, friend and domestic staff, she pasted an 11-foot woman on the intersection. "Soon we had gathered a small crowd of onlookers curious about what we were doing. With a lot of adhesive, a tall ladder and suggestions from the crowd, we managed to paste a giant woman looming over a bike onto the bridge."

The next morning, Shehzil's fearless biker had disappeared, leaving unanswered questions: was she taken away because somebody had fallen in love with her or because somebody was disturbed by her presence?

'More power to the powerless, always'

More often than not, women's clothes are designed to satisfy the male gaze, but Malik hopes that her new collection will make women "recognize their own inherent strength." 

Pakistan Lahore Künstlerin Shehzil Malik

Conquering urban spaces

"The intention behind the clothes was to spread a message of hope and strength – that the younger generation could see themselves in the ambitions expressed in the artwork of the collection," says Malik.

While Shehzil's fashion line is paved with good intentions, making it accessible to women from different walks of life remains a challenge. However, as Aisha Ahmad, a Pakistani researcher at University of Oxford, puts it, "I think women asserting themselves through fashion as heterogeneous – strong and angry and delicate all at the same time – is unequivocally a good thing."

"How much that cuts across lines of class and geography and culture is a question we must ask ourselves, lest we get carried away," adds Ahmad. "That said, more power to the powerless. Always."

This story is part of Well-connected Women, a European Journalism Centre project, telling stories of women harnessing the internet for gender equality in Pakistan. For more stories, follow @wconnectedwomen.