_By Ushah Kazi
Ever since that fateful statistic labelled Pakistan as the third most dangerous country for women in the world, we have been trying to find stories and make statements that prove otherwise. Add to that popular culture’s fascination with all things feminist, when you cannot be a bonafide Hollywood icon without claiming the title, and suddenly local companies realized that women like being seen as people (read: that we are not just mothers, daughter, sisters and occasionally Machiavellian mothers-in-law whose sole purpose is to destroy their son’s marriage.)
Enter the age of female empowerment commodification, paralleling the typical ‘how to be beautiful’ commercials that interrupt your daily news updates (a la Fair and Lovely) there was suddenly a slew of pseudo-emancipating adverts.
A campy Mahira Khan in a wonder woman avatar holds up a pack of Nesvita milk touting, “Bones strong to meh strong” (when my bones are strong, so am I.)
A young lady with a thick accent, wearing a traditional garb (because how else would you know that she’s Sindhi) informs us that she shattered rural patriarchy by turning her Jazz cell number and phone into a virtual class room.
Most recently, a defiant young woman goes against the odds to not only thrive as an international athlete but also convert her unsupportive father; thankfully a Q-Mobile cell phone was at hand to capture the story.
This shouldn’t be taken to mean that there are no examples amongst the multitude of female led cash grabs of something more special. When HBL put the nation’s first woman to summit Mount Everest and first female scuba diving instructor on their billboards for example, accompanied by the tagline “all a dream needs is someone to believe in it…” they present individuals who have the moral courage to inspire.
But make no mistake, these are carefully scripted ventures headed by national and often international corporate powerhouses. They are meant to attract mass audience, and hence go out of their way to project a certain kind of empowering woman.
They ignore that more often than not, unconventionally successful women succeed and even exist in spite of society, not because of it.
Hence it is a shame but not a surprise that within days of it’s viral ascend the campaign video for clothing brand Do Your Own Thing (DYOT) was taken down. It was never going to please everyone since from the onset the message wasn’t preppy and likeable.
No, the message here wasn’t “let’s all dance together like a big happy family” rather the dance took on a hostility, challenging the onlookers to stop the young women from performing in public. They were dancing in spite of a community that would silence them, not because of it.
For acclaimed writer Bina Shah, the openly hostile expressions in the video were the problem. In a blog post for Dawn she offers an alternative story for the campaign, one where a young girl wants to play cricket but is of course denied entry into the game by boys. Fashionable women wearing DYOT clothing then enter the scene and encourage the girl and boys to play together, to prove that “gender interaction is normal, healthy and beneficial for all.”
There is nothing wrong with this image, and therein lies the problem. It is a trope that follows the formula of a generically likeable story with a pleasant tone and happy end. Shah’s criticism of the video is that the women seem angry, as if there is something wrong with the very act of being angry and rebelling. But anger is a natural phenomenon; when you’re walking down the street and a gentleman walks up beside you, hissing, winking and scratching bits of himself that aren’t really itchy, your first reaction is a mix of fear and anger. You’re afraid of possible escalation, and angry that someone is putting you in this vulnerable position. The video showed an idealistic response to this; to do your own thing despite onlookers which should be appreciated if not accepted.
“…when you’re walking down the street and a gentleman walks up beside you, hissing, winking and scratching bits of himself that aren’t really itchy, your first reaction is a mix of fear and anger. You’re afraid of possible escalation, and angry that someone is putting you in this vulnerable position.”
But lest I be misunderstood, I did have problems with the video.
I had a problem with the disconnect between the ambiance and the clothes on display. If the imagery is rebellious, you’d want a rebellious product to back it up. Yet the outfits sported by the ladies could have easily slipped into the corniest romantic scene of the latest HUM TV soap opera.
I had a problem that, as Shah pointed out mind you, all the women taking centre stage conformed to a certain standard of beauty. If the tagline is ‘do your own thing’ then shouldn’t women of all shapes, sizes, colours and ages be projecting the message?
Finally, I had a huge problem with the fact that everyone salivating over or judging the ladies appeared to be a man of lower socio-economic standing. In reality if you have never garnered judgement or unwanted attention from a classmate, teacher, boss, work colleague or relative of either sex, then welcome to earth.
But for two reasons I support the production and applaud the effort.
Firstly, while some call the video elitist, it is as much about an underdog as an unknown player opening a decisive cricket match.
Everything that works in the world is marred to some degree by politics, and fashion is no exception. In a country like Pakistan, where politics is a favourite tea-time snack and fashion is the guilty pleasure of choice, a merging of the two is all the more inevitable. Hence, if for no other reason, you have to appreciate an aspiring group of creative people flexing their entrepreneurial muscles.
In a strange way, the flash mob reminded me of a talented Parisian designer named Jaquemus who, lacking the funds for a professional campaign, organized a street protest instead. Complete with decked up models and protest signs, his ‘strike’ was a simultaneous snapshot of creativity and frustration. In a world where being a talented designer was not enough if you didn’t know the right people, he turned the game on it’s head and got the French press’ attention.
In an interview with Images, the co-manager for DYOT channeled similar energy claiming, “we’re a small brand, we can’t afford billboards so we wanted to make a viral video…” Essentially, they succeeded. Everyone is talking about what until a few weeks ago was an unknown brand. This would not have happened if the campaign was pleasant and conformist, only shock value can achieve this level of buzz. But like most of us, they overestimated the public’s tolerance for all things different.
“In a country like Pakistan, where politics is a favourite tea-time snack and fashion is the guilty pleasure of choice, a merging of the two is all the more inevitable.”
Secondly their statement was bold and uncomfortable, and hence needed. The idea of women daring onlookers to stop them from dancing on the streets is not something we’ve seen in Pakistan’s mainstream media, and most likely it is not something that we’ll see again.
Again, just to be clear, I had a problem with the video’s pandering to the stereotype about working class men. As highlighted by the group Girls At Dhabas in their response to the video, just as it is wrong to claim that there is a ‘right’ kind of woman, similarly it is problematic to claim that there is a ‘wrong’ kind of man. As a nation, we are obsessed with the flaws of men from poorer backgrounds. Even projects produced with the noblest intentions are guilty of this. Udaari for example which has garnered mass support and rightfully so for shattering the silence around child abuse, still limits it’s range to a village setting.
Abuse, stalking, harassment these are issues that plague all levels of society and both men and women can be perpetrators, and keeping in mind the nature of dialogue, I have a right to disagree with the video, just as the DYOT team had a right to put forth their opinions and ideas.
But the moral police have once again gotten in the way of healthy dialogue, and that we must all be against. In the Facebook post detailing their decision to remove the video, the DYOT admin claim that the principle reason is that threats were made against the dancers. They claim that the video was not an attempt to support female empowerment, and surely they have to claim this when the safety of young women is at stake. But at it’s heart, I believe that the rise and fall of the DYOT sensation was about freedom of expression.
It isn’t helpful to assign generalizations to a group of people, but once again Pakistan’s morale brigade has succeeded in silencing dissenting voices. The video was flawed, and there were intelligent responses to it; there was healthy debate. By compelling the team to choose between their right to express themselves and the safety of young girls, the online bullies have once again silenced someone who dared go against their versions of morality.
For this reason we should all be upset about the DYOT video being removed.
You don’t have to agree with their message, you don’t even have to be a champion for women’s rights, but for the sake of common dialogue, and our collective right to free speech you should have supported DYOT.