Why Pakistani artist Shehzil Malik's new artwork which looks at women in public spaces in Lahore could have been set in Delhi
Pakistani artist Shehzil Malik loves walking.
“It clears my head, centres me and gives me the time I need to reflect and plot," she writes in an 22 August tumblr post . But for a woman to walk across to her neighbourhood park is no easy task; “it felt like entering a battleground," she writes, “So unnerved I was by my daily walk that I felt compelled to draw a comic about it as catharsis."
The comic depicts what she does every day before heading out for her walk.
Her “unacceptable" low-necked T-shirt is replaced by “the ratty old kurta no one will look at twice". She swathes herself, “like a human burrito" in a thick, ochre dupatta, “the longer, the better," Her dark flowing tresses are tied back into a sensible pony-tail and her face is wiped clean of all make-up. But the jeans stay on (“I cheated").
Malik is talking about Lahore, but she could have as easily set her narrative in Delhi.
An earlier artwork explains why she needs to dress so sedately before heading out.
Posted in tribute to the Stanford rape victim, the sepia and black image depicts a woman walking down the road, with bowed head and troubled eyes, the gaze of strange men following her every step.
“There is no simple answer to how to manage being a woman. You can’t rationalise the fear that very genuinely exists when you step outside," she writes, while yet another work—a barrage of eye-balls following a pony-tailed girl—reinforces the pervasiveness of the male gaze.
“Every day without fail, I’d be followed, heckled, sung to and stared at," she says, adding that she has also been groped, mugged and threatened.
Not all her work is so dark. There are images that celebrate female strength. Her trip to the Hunza Valley that, “gave her the opportunity to see an equality between genders in Pakistan", resulted in a glamourous imagery of a woman from the Hunzai community: “They are an integral part of the areas’s community service, they work as masons and woodworkers, they farm the land and care for the livestock, they cook and run restaurants, raise wonderfully courteous children and keep the crafts of the area alive. These women are magic.
The questions that the artist raises, a visiting faculty at the Beaconhouse National University at Lahore, are universal ones—of gender and identity and equality.
However, what she didn’t count on was how putting the images out on the internet and social media would change things for her. It made her realize how so many women in the world felt the same way, were, “made to feel uncomfortable in their own skin."
It also changed the way she looked at the world when she stepped outside—deepening her conviction that she had as much as right to occupy public spaces as anyone else. Other movements, both in Pakistan and in India, mirror these very sentiments—including “Why Loiter?" in Mumbai, “Girls at Dhaba" in Pakistan and Pinjra Tod in Delhi. After all as Malik says, “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."