Pakistani Feminism, much like Pakistani culture, is both rich and layered in diversity. The most recent development is digital media filtering into more households than previously, paving the way for a new understanding of Pakistani women and what young girls aspire to be. The Female Icon for women has been complicated in the past, while for some it is the first female Prime Minister Benazhir Bhutto, revered for her dedication to both her country and of course, her family. The famous singers of the past, Noor Jahan and Farida Khanum, were appreciated for their uncompromising talent. Actresses of today are loved for the depth in which their characters are performed. Yet, there is rarely an aspirational quality to any of these icons. There is little correspondence between these women and the political movements that alleviate girls at home, of their worries or the borders they understand to be their limitations in aspiration.
Today’s popular Instagram and print Models break this rule. Models like Eman Suleman, Zara Peerzada, Rubbab Ali and more, are creating a new template of what a Pakistani woman can be. Entirely motivated by the self. Outspoken, political, outsiders by choice. The habitus and the space that these women take up is entirely different to the way other women in the limelight present themselves. While a leading TV actress’ tweets to millions of followers condemning women’s marches, all three of these women refused to attend prestigious award shows to protest accused sexual assaulters being nominated. These women speak against structures of power, against the establishment and hold themselves accountable for their own privilege. They expose the way in which sex work is compared to modeling without demeaning sex workers, they support minorities without denouncing their own faith. They break the mold whilst growing their own version of it.
One of the largest structures of oppression that exist in Pakistan, is the physical constraint that women constantly suffer. Girls at Dhabas is an organization that encourages women to be a presence in public spaces, to break the societal purdah that pervades women in all stratas of society. The way females are suppressed is both visceral and physical. This very barrier is exemplified in the female modesty that is believed by many to be key to Pakistani female experience. Whilst many women may choose to dress however they want outside of public spaces, these women use their social media platforms to nip away at these social norms without the danger of physical policing. Although online hate should not be underrated, there is a safety that comes with being behind a screen - for the online trolls, but also for those who choose to defy the so-called modesty police. The key aspect of these women’s digital expressions is that it is not outwardly exclaiming to be ‘different’ but rather a natural expression of the self that doesn’t align with what is seen as proper.
The most valuable thing that these models provide, mainly women but also consist of LGBTQI+ identifying men and other outliers in the eyes of mainstream Pakistan, is a space for young people to live in that does not follow the narrative that exists in other forms of media around the country. The way these icons engage with their social media may not be the way they exist in public life, but this space has provided an outlet for them to be in so many ways they can’t elsewhere. The most successful models also have big groups of fans who protect their freedoms to express in any form, and who fight against the online trolls that use whatever ideology is needed to protest their posts or captions. Modeling is not seen to have value by many people in Pakistan; it is seen as either promiscuous, superficial, or unimportant. The way in which these women have transformed this identity into a way to empower those who use social media as an outlet to explore intellectually provides an insight into how digital activism will take a new shape in the Pakistani context.