Salman Toor’s Rising Star – Revolutionary art in Pakistani diaspora

By Alexandra Bregman

Two years ago, hardly anyone outside  of Pakistan had heard of Salman Toor. Born in Lahore, Pakistan in 1983, his moody figures were quietly collected by the elites of his home country, pondered by the Brooklyn set, and shopped around by the New York staple for South Asian art, Aicon Gallery. With the November 2020 ‘How Will I Know’, his first solo show at the Whitney Museum in New York City, however, Toor completely exploded onto the global art scene and became an overnight art world darling. 

The prices speak for themselves. In December 2020, Toor’s first-ever auctioned painting, Rooftop Ghost Party I (2015), sold for eight times its estimate at Christie’s for $822,000. Weeks later at Phillips in London, Liberty Porcelain (2012) sold for nine times its estimate of £40,000, at £378,000 ($505,688). And by June 2021, Toor broke his own sales record of $867,000 when Girl with Driver (2013) sold for $890,000 in Hong Kong.

Salman Toor’s “Rooftop Ghost Party I” (2015) – Artnet News

The 15-painting retrospective at the Whitney Museum drew its title from a painting called Dancing to Whitney (2018). It was one of Toor’s first artworks in what has since become his signature style, based on a memory of dancing to Whitney Houston with friends. In the painting, and in life, the sinewy queer male figures were pondering the lyrics. How will they know what the future holds?

The present holds The Frick Collection. Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters at the Frick Madison space features Toor with three other New York artists, all focused on queer identity, in conversation with European art: Doron Langberg, Jenna Gribbon, and Toyin Ojih Odutola, on view through January 2022.

Among the reasons Toor did not initially capture the attention of museums and collectors was that he was afraid. The artist spent the first 14 years of his life growing up in Lahore, where he told BOMB magazine he was deemed a “sissy boy”, “often bullied at school and policed everywhere else.” In an interview with Them magazine, Toor said shame was used as a weapon and the threat of violence was always underneath the surface.

In a later conversation with fellow artist Chitra Ganesh for the Whitney showcase, Toor added, “When I grew up in a largely gendered and homophobic culture, I was very used to safe spaces, so the paintings move in between private and public spaces…I realized I was still creating safe spaces, because they made me feel happy and comfortable. And the more I had, the more abundantly I felt at home…” 

Paintings like The Smokers (2018) and Nightmare and Car Boys (2019) reference the terror of lurking officers in a state defined by its strict penal code, a far cry from the joyfulness so clearly shown in scenes from New York. This spilled over into his art, which catered to South Asian audiences. The work that is now so beloved was just for his apartment, a private world where he could be free.

Salman Toor’s “Ambush II” (2019) – Nature Morte
Salman Toor’s “The Smokers” (2018) – Aicon Contemporary

The new works quickly went viral on Instagram. The groups of figures resonated with audiences during the pandemic, who were hungering to reconvene and socialize, and speak to a rapidly changing collective consciousness. As societal norms are questioned on an international scale, the question remains how this will circle back into Pakistan.

“I was very lucky to be part of a culture that was changing here,” Toor told Whitney curator Ambika Trasi, “In which people were being assertive, wanting to be seen, producing new ideas of beauty and multi-ethnic progressiveness that are imminently exportable.”

Aligned with the “queer intelligentsia,” Black Lives Matter and the feminist art of friend Indian artist, Ganesh, some of Toor’s work shows scenes of brown men in contemporary nightlife settings in New York. As a Pakistani artist, his work expresses apolitical expressions of joy that are at odds with a global perception that associates Pakistan with terrorism, security, the Taliban and religious extremism. 

Rather, Toor’s happiest paintings are scenes of the interior home and underground bar scene in New York and Pakistan alike, where he could—finally—feel safe. The intimacies of everything from apartment trinkets to technology and skin creams reveal the hodgepodge of the everyday, a take on 21st century portraiture thus far not yet fully represented.

Toor’s work is a part of an important canon of contemporary South Asian artists who draw inspiration from colonial Indian miniature painting (including Shahzia Sikander), but it is particularly poignant because it finds the self where it has never been before. 

In art history class at college in Ohio, the only dark-skinned subjects of Old Master paintings were the servants. Now, he belongs in a powerful canon with Ganesh’s open sexuality and goddess Kali, Black artist Kerry James Marshall’s scenes of familiarity. There are queer artists like Israeli painter, Doron Langberg, and even David Antonio Cruz with his Puerto Rican Pieta (2006). To the Pakistani gaze, this untraditional crew is a reminder that radical acceptance is happening across the pond, and that neglecting to do so will bleed out top talent. 

Perhaps in reaction to the neglect of this rich inner world, Toor’s subjects take on a mythic, even melodic quality. Dance is a recurring theme in Toor’s work, which stems both from Baroque paintings and a brief stint on a hippie commune, but also evokes the festivities depicted in subcontinental miniature painting, particularly the ragamalas. 

Salman Toor’s “Four Friends” (2019) – Whitney.org

Toor’s training was initially highly derivative, drawing inspiration from Dutch and Italian Old Masters and the flourish of Mughal women’s eyes and shoes. The paintings still possess a slightly French Post-Impressionist movement; Toor says he drew inspiration for the mix-and-match palette of the figures from Picasso, but the bedroom scenes and bright backgrounds suggest Henri Toulouse-Lautrec or Amedeo Modigliani. In any case, the global perspective of the artist threads together the many images he has consumed throughout his life, seeking his own power through nostalgia. 

The paintings, Toor told BOMB, are much about dichotomy: the Old Master versus the Instagram photo, overconnected but not interconnected, the Old Master light of a cell phone. Loneliness in the public eye, happiness and freedom punctuated by the passions of queer life.

But in this fantasy universe, the hairy brown bodies always find themselves at peace. They possess a mythic power; Toor imagines them as creative and educated, challenging societal norms about race and foreignness in America. They may never belong in the traditional sense as South Asians in diaspora, but they belong fully unto themselves.

Alexandra Bregman is a freelance writer with a specialization in art and art markets. She has previously written about South Asian art for The Art Newspaper, The Asian Art Newspaper, and Nikkei Asia among other publications.

The Taliban are back. Now What?

By: Sahar Khan

The Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan after taking Kabul last week. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has fled and landed in Dubai. While the Taliban’s offensive has been going on for months, it recently acquired a momentum that has startled the world. President Joe Biden stood firmly by his decision to withdraw troops, stating that the United States had achieved its core goals over a decade ago, which were to 1) dismantle al Qaeda and 2) find Osama bin Laden. He did, however, admit that Afghan security forces fell more quickly than anticipated. 

The Taliban have been steadily gaining ground for the last few years. The collapse of the Afghan security forces is due to a myriad of reasons, such as a lack of capacity, corruption, competing security forces (backed by the CIA no less), and a lack of resources. US intelligence also warned the Biden administration of the potential for collapse. Yet, none of that really matters now. The Afghan people are fleeing for their lives as their country falls apart and the airports become war zone-like. Now, many are looking more closely at Pakistan, which houses approximately 3 million Afghan refugees, with more refugees trying to come in.   

Implications for Pakistan

Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan dates back to the Soviet invasion, when the country’s intelligence agency and the CIA provided covert support to the Mujahideen (Islamic guerilla fighters) who were fighting the Soviets. The Mujahideen movement gained popularity in an unstable post-Soviet era and eventually became the Taliban. Pakistan recognized the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan in 1996. After the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Pakistan provided sanctuary to Taliban leadership, the Haqqani Network, and other militant groups, all of which has been documented in the works of foreign policy journalist, Ahmad Rashid, politics and national security writer, Steve Coll, and international relations professor, Hassan Abbas, to name a few.  

Yet, Pakistan has repeatedly said it supports an Afghan-led peace process. The Afghan peace process roughly began when the Taliban and Donald Trump administration signed a deal in February 2020 and continued — albeit slowly — with talks between the Taliban and Afghan government. 

Similarly, the US-Pakistan relationship has been rocky for some time. The US accuses Pakistan of playing a double game by sponsoring and harboring militant groups like the Taliban and Haqqani Network. While the US accuses Pakistan of not supporting its war in Afghanistan, Pakistan accuses the US of always using it and refusing to acknowledge the sacrifices it has made since the Global War on Terror began in 2001. Pakistan paid a high price for being a US ally in the form of civilian casualties and drone strikes. However, Pakistan maintains that its leverage over the Taliban, which the US perceives as being powerful, is actually not as strong. Ghani’s government also asked Pakistan to bring the group to the negotiating table and reduce the brutality of its offensive operations.

Prime Minister Imran Khan says it is unfair to blame Pakistan for the situation in Afghanistan. Unfair or not, if Pakistan refuses to condemn the Taliban’s ongoing violence, it may permanently damage its own reputation on the world stage along with the economic pivot it’s desperately working on. Putting aside morality, it is also in Pakistan’s strategic interest to openly condemn the way the Taliban have come into power. Pakistan has been trying to show the world that it is not as closely aligned with the Taliban as it used to be in the 1990s, and that it does not control the group in any way. If that is really the case, the Khan administration has an opportunity to highlight this changed dynamic between Pakistani authorities and the Taliban.  

What the Taliban Want

The Taliban want international recognition — and in their quest to get it, the group has been busy presenting a moderate image of itself, stating that it will allow women to work and girls to attend schools. For the Taliban, recognition is extremely important as it would allow the group to have sovereignty over Afghanistan, though that sovereignty comes with the obligation to obey international law. For example: The Taliban would have to respect human rights, abide by international trade laws, give up their various illicit activities, and be open to diplomacy. Whether the Taliban wants to do any of this (and more) is unclear. 

The key question is: Will the international community recognize the Taliban? The answer is not so simple. 

Russia stated that its recognition of the Taliban will depend on the conditions on the ground. Russia’s main strategic goal after all is to ensure that the instability from Afghanistan stays away from Central Asia and its doorstep, a desire that is shared by Afghanistan’s neighbors. Similar to Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan are all worried about spillover effects and instability caused by the influx of refugees — during a pandemic no less. Iran is also wary of a Taliban takeover, which is notoriously anti-Shia. China has been a little more forthcoming by stating that it is open to having “friendly relations” with the Taliban. Pakistan has not officially recognized the Taliban either, but is laying the groundwork to do so.

For now, things are moving too quickly to accurately predict what will happen in Afghanistan. But one thing is clear: Innocent Afghans are paying the ultimate price.

Sahar is a research fellow in the defense and foreign policy department at the Cato Institute. Her research interests include state‐​sponsored militancy/​terrorism, counterterrorism policies, anti‐​terrorism legal regimes, and private military and security contractors. She focuses on US foreign policy in South Asia and Africa. She is also an editor at Inkstick Media. You can find her @khansahar1 on Twitter. 

Domestic Abuse: Pakistan’s ongoing endemic

By: Anushe Engineer

Noor Mukadam. Her’s is a name most of us probably hadn’t heard of till July 20, but now it’s all we can think about. That the daughter of a former ambassador could be tortured and beheaded in an affluent neighbourhood in the nation’s capital is a bone-chilling thought for many to digest. As the triad from the influential Jaffer family await legal proceedings while being remanded in Adiala Jail, the nation waits to see how the judicial system progresses this case.   

Police arrested 30-year-old Zahir Jaffer and charged him with premeditated murder after finding 27-year-old Noor dead in his home. On July 24, police arrested Zahir’s parents and household staff who were accused of “abetment” and “willful concealment” in Noor’s murder. A police official said Zahir confessed to killing Noor on July 26. 

Noor’s murder is anything but an isolated incident; Pakistan has a dismal track record of violence against women. From 2004 to 2016, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported 4,734 cases of sexual violence and 15,222 cases of honour killings (a practice where a person, usually a woman or a girl, is murdered by family members for allegedly bringing “dishonour” to the family). Honour killings and gender-based violence in Pakistan have ranked the country 153 out of 156 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report 2021.  

The news of Noor’s murder has been making headlines worldwide, not just because she was the daughter of  former Pakistani diplomat Shaukat Mukadam, but also because of the prominent and wealthy business family Zahir belongs to. Within days of the incident, a GoFundMe was set up to help Noor’s family cover hefty legal expenses, vigils were held in cities across Pakistan, Dublin, New York and London, and a mural of Noor was painted in Sialkot. 

Women who don’t share the same socioeconomic background as Noor often remain anonymous statistics of domestic violence. Their stories of trauma and abuse fall on deaf ears, not just because society has become desensitized to the repetitive cycle of violence but also because there is limited legal protection for them that isn’t actively enforced. 

A breakdown of the bill 

The Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill 2021 hasn’t been approved by Parliament yet, leaving the fate of the bill hanging in the balance. On the one hand, the bill was passed by the National Assembly in April of this year. However, plans are underway by religiopolitical parties to actively oppose the bill since they deem it contrary to what’s written in Islam. 

The bill itself offers a comprehensive definition of domestic violence encompassing physical, emotional, psychological and economic abuse committed against women, children or other vulnerable people. Offenders will be imprisoned anywhere between six months and three years and will also have to pay a fine of Rs20,000 — Rs100,000 as compensation to the victim. 

Why is the bill being opposed?

Religious parties are vociferously opposing this bill because they claim it goes against the teachings of the Quran, Islam and the constitution. Maulana Fazlur Rahman of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl (JUI-F) party said this was the government’s way of secularising the country. 

It’s not that JUI-F and other religious parties condone domestic violence, Fazl said. It’s that the domestic violence bill will destroy family life and promote “Western culture and values” instead of Islamic ones. 

Even the government seems to be appeasing groups like JUI-F in regards to the domestic violence bill. One of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s advisers recommended that the bill be reviewed by the Council of Islamic Ideology to determine whether the bill goes against the teachings of Islam in any way. 

The CII has yet to announce their decision regarding the bill. However, since they proposed a bill in 2016 to allow men to “lightly beat their wives”, there is speculation that they might oppose the domestic violence bill since it outlaws physical abuse.

A lack of enforcement

Even if the domestic violence bill gets passed by parliament, it will only apply to the Islamabad Capital Territory. Sindh and Balochistan have their own provincial bills for protection against domestic violence, while Punjab passed the Protection of Women Against Violence Bill 2015, but that’s the extent of legal protection offered in the country.  

Domestic violence is endemic and cyclical in Pakistan. The issue isn’t a lack of laws so much as a lack of stringent enforcement of those laws. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan welcomed Punjab’s new legislature with caution, reminding people that “cosmetic and purely procedural changes” don’t always have an impact.

Where do we go from here? 

July 2021 was when Pakistan and much of the world grieved for Noor and questioned how Zahir could have committed such a heinous crime. Five years earlier Pakistan was under global scrutiny when Qandeel Baloch, also known as Pakistan’s first “social media star,” was killed by her brother “for honour”. Noor, Qandeel and thousands of other women aren’t one-off cases of domestic violence and honour killings. Pakistanis need to acknowledge that violence and abuse towards women is woven into this country’s social fabric, and there is no guarantee that existing laws and regulations will effectively change that. 

For now, non-governmental organizations like White Ribbon Pakistan are taking the initiative to educate both men and women on women’s rights. They launched a nationwide legal literacy campaign and provide legal assistance to victims of violence. 

Anushe is a senior at Scripps College, California majoring in Politics with a concentration in International Relations. She’s currently a news editor for her college newspaper, The Student Life, and hopes to delve into investigative reporting post graduation. Anushe was also an Editorial Intern with The NewsRun in the summer of 2021. You can find her on Twitter @yesits_Engineer

Taking time off after having a baby remains an off-limit luxury for many

By: Sarah Munir

Suggested reading time: 8 minutes

Earlier this month, the Pakistan Cricket Board announced a refreshing new parental support policy that would allow both men and women cricketers some time off after having a child. As part of the new set of policies, women cricketers will be allowed to take a year-long paid maternity leave, in addition to the option of switching to a non-playing role as they approach their maternity leave, Dawn News reported. A contract for the following year will also be guaranteed when leaving for maternity leave. When the athletes return to work, they will be provided physical training and support to rehabilitate after childbirth. Male cricketers are also allowed concessions, and will be able to take a month-long paid paternity leave. On May 16, Pakistan cricket team captain Bismah Maroof announced her decision to take an indefinite maternity leave. 

The policy reform by PCB has been widely lauded as a much-needed step forward in providing childcare support and fostering gender diversity in the workplace. 

Tell me more …

Though women constitute 49 percent of Pakistan’s population, female labor force participation stands at 22 percent – placing it among the lowest in South Asia and the world.  The gender gap stands at 23.7 percent with only 4.2 percent women holding senior or middle management positions. According to the Global Gender Gap Index Report 2020, published by the World Economic Forum, Pakistan also ranks 151 out of the 153 countries, surpassing only Iraq and Yemen.

Despite maternity protection being labeled a fundamental labour right by major human rights treaties like UDHR, ICESR and CEDAW, Pakistan has failed to provide sufficient childcare facilities to its workers, especially women. As a result, most women drop out of the workforce as they near or experience childbirth, reducing their economic participation drastically. When half of the country’s labor force remains unsupported and watches from the sidelines, it is no surprise that the economic performance takes a massive hit.

Source: Shutterstock

Between a rock and a hard place

According to local law, employers are expected to provide 12 weeks of paid maternity leave (16 weeks in Sindh), free healthcare during and after pregnancy, protection from dismissals and periodic nursing breaks in accordance with the International Labor Organization’s Maternity Protection Convention 1919 (No 3). But the measures fall short of what is required or needed.

And in some cases, it directly affects the mothers who are trying to build a career while caring for their families. Kiran*, a medical officer at a Karachi-based private healthcare facility describes her employer’s policy of granting only a 45-day unpaid leave after delivery as “exhausting.” “Not having a daycare facility at the workplace also exacerbates the guilt of not being with my newborn. It feels like I am losing on both ends,” she shares.

Women who are employed in the private sector usually have better luck if the organization is progressive, the labor force is unionized and/or if their immediate supervisors are cooperative. Madiha Javed Qureshi, who was working at Nestle at the time of her pregnancy lauds the company for being extremely flexible with their maternity and paternity leave policies and providing day care services to parents. “Being a first-time mother is an extremely difficult and anxiety-ridden period for working women,” she says. “If my employer had not extended the kind of support they did, I can’t imagine how I would have continued working.”

According to Iftikhar Ahmed, founder of Center for Labor Research, paying for maternity leave and establishing day care centers should not be the employer’s responsibility. Instead, he recommends building of day care centers at a community level by the government and financing maternity leaves by social security rather than making it an employer liability.

Source: Shutterstock

Care and support goes a long way

Even when maternity/paternity leaves are flexible, lack of affordable and reliable childcare facilities often discourages young mothers from returning to work. With more and more families becoming nuclear, most women start contemplating leaving work during pregnancy as there is no one to care for the child. Zainab Bhatti, who works in a managerial role at LUMS, gives credit to the institution for allowing her a generous maternity leave but wishes there were more options for bringing your children to the workplace. “I am a special needs mother and it is difficult for me to leave my baby for prolonged hours.” Her concern is echoed by Bisma*, whose decision to continue work was impacted by the availability of a subsidized day care facility at the private hospital she worked at. “I don’t think I would have been able to work full-time without this support,” she says.

Unfortunately, if these needs are not met, legal recourse for workers is limited. Even in cases of unfair dismissals or discriminatory policies by employers, there isn’t much employees can do, says Parvez Rahim, a labour law and employee relations expert. “The labour litigation process in Pakistan is expensive and time consuming.  Even the cases of ‘alleged unfair dismissals from service’ take years for decisions,” he said. Hence, young parents are not left with much choice besides relying on each other or families for support or dishing out money from their own pockets to ensure that their child is in the safe hands of a private caretaker.

Is change on the horizon?

In January 2020, the Senate passed the Maternity and Paternity Leave Bill, 2018, which entitles women to a maternity leave of six months and also allows men a paternity leave of three months. Mothers and fathers may get further three- and one-month optional leaves but those will be unpaid, it says. The employer won’t be allowed to terminate the services of an employee for seeking leave under the provisions of the bill. The bill was moved by Pakistan Peoples Party Senator Quratulain Marri and is still to be considered by the National Assembly.

While some have lauded the bill for providing relief to working mothers and paving a path for equality, where men and women share the role of providing for and raising children together, others have reservations due to its limited application. The bill will be applicable only to enterprises within the administrative control of the federal government. Moreover, experts think some checks and balances are also required to ensure it is not misused as a recreational leave but instead allows fathers to step up as the primary caretaker while allowing mothers to rest or return to work.

Given the physical and financial strain of having a child, coupled with a lack of support from the state and employers, more and more young parents are choosing to delay childbirth. Those that don’t are often forced to take a sabbatical from work and/or forgo their career completely. According to Rahim, the sphere of labour laws in Pakistan is in “complete shambles” after the passage of the 18th Amendment in April 2010, which devolved more control to the provinces. There is little focus on maternity leave and working women’s rights when other critical labour welfare laws applicable to the entire workforce are on the “verge of total collapse”, he added. But some young parents choose to remain hopeful for change. “Women can be mothers and have ambitious careers at the same time. The world is making it happen for us, it’s about time that Pakistan takes a step in that direction too,” Kiran says as she gets ready for her first-born. 

A look at the rest of the world

Here are some countries that are miles ahead in terms of extending support to both parents:

Finland: Starting in 2021, each parent will be allowed 164 days, or about seven months.  A single parent can take the amount of two parents, or 328 days. 

Denmark: New moms in Denmark get a total of 18 weeks of maternity leave: four weeks before the birth and 14 weeks after, at full pay. During the 14-week period, the father can also take two consecutive weeks off.

Sweden: New parents in Sweden are entitled to 480 days of leave at 80% of their normal pay. 

Norway: Mothers can take 49 weeks at full pay or 59 weeks at 80% pay, and fathers can take between zero and 10 weeks depending on their wives’ income.

New Zealand: Earlier this year New Zealand began to offer a three-day paid bereavement leave for couples who have suffered a miscarriage. India and China also have similar policies in place that allows couples to take time off and grieve in case of experiencing a misscarriage.

Some names have been changed due to privacy concerns

Bio: Sarah Munir is a digital journalist with a focus on the intersection of technology and media. She has worked with several publications including Dawn, Facebook, Forbes, and most recently Twitter. You can reach her @SarahMunir1.

Pakistan’s complicated relationship with body positivity

By: Sarah Munir

Suggested reading time: 7 mins

Consider yourself lucky if you missed the latest botched attempt by Pakistani media at body positivity or inclusivity in the form of Express Entertainment’s drama Oye Motti.” As the promo reveals, the story revolves around protagonist Aalia – whose body size appears to be everyone’s business including her beloved partner-to-be Nauman. In a strange plot twist, Nauman lays down a condition for Aalia to reduce her weight by half if she wants to tie the coveted marital knot. 

Head meet wall

As tone-deaf as this plot twist sounds, according to a Dawn News report, the show “has been created to highlight the deeply-rooted culture of body shaming in our society.” The show’s lead Kanwal Aftab also said in an Instagram post that she worked very hard on this project to bring attention to the desi culture of body shaming.

Sounds like the opposite of what it seems, right?

Why are we so bad at representing different-sized bodies?

Despite women’s bodies and sizes being the center of unsolicited policing and politics in Pakistan, we have somehow not been able to find the right vocabulary or understanding of what it means to embrace bodies that do not meet societal ideals. Not only have we failed to center bodies that fall outside of the tall, thin, fair construct in our fashion and mainstream media, we also don’t have the right language to talk about people’s weight without reducing them to it. 

Pictured above: Multimedia journalist & Comedian Sabah Bano Malik rocking a sari

According to multimedia journalist and comedian Sabah Bano Malik, these attitudes are rooted in conformity – being happy with anything that falls outside of what is considered appropriate or attractive is almost seen as “threatening” in our society, she says. Malik also feels the over-sexualization of bodies from a young age deems it almost vulgar for women to be heavier and be ok with it – especially if they carry that weight around their breasts and hips. 

Digs at being overweight in day-to-day conversations is commonplace and portraying overweight people as sloppy, simple-minded sidekicks by the media has turned being a different size into an ailment that must be avoided at all costs. Not to mention entire corporations that swoop in and sell the dream of being thin with weight-loss supplements, fad diets and fat-free everything. 

Have fun in whatever body you are in

Pictured above: Marketeer and body positivity advocate Sarah Raseen Khan in the latest Generation campaign

Despite dressing up and fashion being such a central part of economic and social activity in the desi society, good clothing options for larger-sized bodies are limited. Frustrated with this lack of representation, 24-year-old marketing professional Sarah Raseen Khan decided to advocate for being happy in whatever size you are in through experimenting with her fashion choices and sharing it publicly on her Instagram feed. “I felt that by speaking about it, I could be the person I needed when I was younger. I could help change the narrative about “the ideal body type” and push for representation of bigger bodies in all forms of media,” shared Khan who can be seen rocking everything from a halter to a sari on her social feed.

Source: Khaadi

After years of designers and commercial brands sidelining bigger bodies in their campaigns and collections, brands like Khaddi and Generation are also leading the way in body acceptance. Not only have they centered “normal” bodies in their imagery and shoots, these brands are also trying to redefine what it means to create fashion that is inclusive and accessible to everyone. In a Scroll report, Generation creative director Khadija Rehman says it’s “tragic” that plus-sized women are not enabled to have fun with their clothes. Plus-sized beauties of Pakistan, she said, “just need to develop more swagger in their walk and not worry so much what others would think.”

Unhealthy body expectations 

Beyond fashion and clothing, comments about size and weight are commonplace in desi culture. Unsolicited advice on gaining/losing weight, invasive questions about body size and tying women’s worth to a number on the scale is far more common than we like to admit.

Malik shares that she often gets bombarded with a lot of advice on how she needs to lose weight or how certain clothing styles are not meant for her body type. “It’s kind of crazy just how angry people get when fat women are existing peacefully and without hiding themselves, they get really amped up about it,” she said. Khan adds that people also get uncomfortable when she portrays comfort with her body while being active. She thinks “it’s either because a considerable amount of people still believe that I can’t be the size I am and lead a healthy lifestyle, or they feel uncomfortable seeing a bigger body in activewear.” 

Unattainable body standards in a culture where everything from celebration to mourning is centered around food can also lead to unhealthy relationships with eating from a young age. Coupled with a lack of awareness about eating disorders and mental health at large, this leaves people, especially teenagers extremely vulnerable to physical and mental health complications.

The thinner, the better?

Source: Dawn News

Only last year, newlywed celebrity couple Aagha Ali and Hina Altaf appeared on the popular morning show Good Morning Pakistan and shared what conditions they had laid upon each other before getting married. “Before marriage, Aagha showed me a picture of someone, who wasn’t me and said if you become this fat…” shared Hina. “No ji,” protested Aagha. “I said I don’t want anything in this world, only one promise, only one. Please don’t get fat, for god’s sake.”

While the clip went viral, the mentality behind these comments is the result of years of conditioning and synonymising being thin with being happy and desirable. Weight is a central concern when it comes to marriage, especially that of women. Young women are often told to watch their weights from an early age in order to brighten their prospects in the matrimonial marketplace. The media has not been of much help here either. Years of rewarding thinness on screen with success, beautiful partners and flamboyant lifestyles has left little space for other ideals to exist. 

Embracing body positivity and opting for healthier narratives around our bodies 

Source: Shutterstock

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the term body positivity and what it entails. At its simplest, body positivity is the idea that people should feel happy with and proud of their body, whatever shape or size it is. Globally, body positivity is a social movement that advocates for the celebration and self-love of visibly fat bodies. The movement has its roots in the fat acceptance movement of the late 1960s, which focused on ending the culture of fat-shaming and discrimination against people based upon their size or body weight. 

The term “body positive” was coined in 1996 following founder Connie Sobczak’s experience with eating disorders in her teen years. The body positivity movement in its current form took off around 2012, manifesting itself with hashtags and selfies online, but a lot of people still remain confused about what it entails. According to Khan, one way of being body positive or an ally is to recognize your inner bias against bigger bodies. Asking yourself if you think differently or less of someone just because of the way they look is a good way of keeping yourself in check, she advises. Malik says it can be something as simple as hearing people out. Allowing people to be different, listening to them and validating their feelings can go a long way, she says.

A guide to body positivity

If you are still confused, we have broken down a few ways in which you can practise and support body positivity in your day-to-day-lives:

  • Recognize that we all come in different shapes and sizes
  • Practise positive self-talk, to yourself and others
  • Switch from fear to gratitude
  • Set health-related goals instead of size-related ones
  • Understand that whatever someone else’s body looks like, is NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS

Healthy ways of talking about body and appearances

Language matters. Here are a few suggestions for talking about health and appearances in a more positive way. Consider reframing your comments the next time you feel tempted to comment on someone’s body or weight. 

Don’tsDo’s
“You look so curvy”“You look so happy. Hope you continue to have days like these”
“Have you lost weight? You look great!’“You take such great care of yourself. I hope to prioritize myself like that too”
How do you stay so thin while eating like that”“I am so inspired by how much you value staying healthy and active”
“I wish I could eat as much as I want and stay thin”I am so grateful to have a healthy body and to be able to eat anything that I wannt”

Bio: Sarah Munir is a digital journalist with a focus on the intersection of technology and media. She has worked with several publications including Dawn, Facebook, Forbes, and most recently Twitter. You can reach her @SarahMunir1.