Girls at Dhabas and the Politics of Dissent

Recently came across this interesting image from the very middle-class environs of Mini-Market in Lahore, through rather celebratory tweets and posts on the Pakistani social media sphere.  The captions on the wall read ‘Freedom for All’ in Urdu with a broader script reading ‘fearless’, though its not overly clear if the intended message seeks ‘freedom’ for women to pass time leisurely or the ‘freedom’ for their images to appear publicly , or if the act of posting the graffiti itself is ‘fearless’ and if the images of the women in it are being shown as being fearless. Any which way the odd juxtaposition of these young, seemingly Westernized women  with a group of obviously under-privileged children came through as oddly out of place and an uncomfortable exercise of bringing something private into the public, a reaction that the painters are possibly aiming for. These images were painted across various cities in Pakistan as a part of the Fearless Pakistan campaign as a collaboration with the larger group Girls At Dhabas (GAD), started by a small group of young, urban, educated and affluent women in cities like Karachi, Lahore , Islamabad and Pindi. In the following days the idea behind this image became clear with the announcement of the Meet to Sleep campaign taking place in Pakistan, again at the behest of the GAD.

If the GAD and its collaborative umbrella groups’ members want to reclaim public spaces for women, more power to them. However rather than being a site of dissent, what this image captures looks more like a space of subversive spectacle. In what ways do the ideas of ‘women taking siestas in public spaces to reclaim them’ or the public images of women casually lounging around town become  vehicles of empowerment? Of course they attract attention, but are they getting the right message across? Will taking public naps or pasting these images publicly around town actually allow the young women of GAD to ‘reclaim’ public spaces? There is no dearth of commercial posters showcasing female fashion models in all kinds of poses, featured in every part of every city of Pakistan. By the same logic, given the large presence of these commercial advertisements with female models, women should have reclaimed public spaces in Pakistan a very long time ago. I sincerely admire the spirit and the underlying thought behind these efforts, however these approaches seem very problematic and superficial to say the least. Adding snazzy captions to such campaigns and images claiming ‘freedom for women’ may not bring freedom or agency in any real sense of the word but in a farcical way may end up objectifying women much in the same way as the commercial entertainment world does, an end which the GAD is  hopefully not working towards. Continue reading


Nargis Fakhri and the Tale of Two Print Mediums

Recently #NargisFakhri was trending on Pakistan’s social media for an unlikely reason. Turns out a visual from the Fakhri’s recent Mobilink campaign was ‘unsuitably’ placed on the front page of various Pakistani Urdu newspapers. (Possibly by the same genius marketing wizards who frequently place giant public billboards of women wearing halter tops and spaghetti straps in locations where one would likely never see women without their chadors and dupattas, often leading to adverse public reactions). The incident generate a controversy strong enough for Fakhri to publicly put out an  an official statement condoning the placement of the visual in an Urdu daily as a ‘shocking’ and  a ‘culturally inappropriate’ placement.  Seemingly ‘the nation’s collective conscience was rattled’ and as an observer put it ‘There were many other rattling stories that day, however the image of Nargis Fakhri lying down holding a mobile phone on the front page of Urdu newspapers was definitely far more nerve wrecking than the rest of the newspaper and the stories put together’.

While it comes as a pleasant surprise that Fakhri is well versed with the cultural values of the Urdu language press, the furor caused on the social media is hardly surprising. From time to time the hegemonic ‘high culture’ narratives of the Pakistani social elite, who control the visual and entertainment  media,  collide with those who represent a vast majority of non- Westernized, somewhat culturally and socially conservative Pakistanis.

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Pakistani Women: Vamps or Victims?

So in connection with our ‘Mediations of the Self’ event at NYU, we had asked some female artists in Pakistan their views about women’s representations in the visual media and the role that women are playing in the media themselves. Among the others we chose to incorporate  Hareem Farooq and Salma Hasan’s replies, as they were most relevant to our discussion. Both speak out against the ‘woman as a victim’ trope t seems to have captured the imagination of most production elite in Pakistan presently. Continue reading

Coke Studio: Invoking Historical Memory

Among other unlikely avenues where popular culture and religiosity is reflected in the public sphere are television based music platforms like the Coke Studio [1], a live studio-recorded music performance series, which largely showcases a fusion of diverse musical influences in Pakistan with a modern Western flair. In other words it reflects the  ‘synaesthic world of sound that can be experienced or tasted in different cultural contexts and life worlds in Pakistan’ (Frembgen 2012: 135). Leaving aside the  debate about corporate materialism and such,  criticism that is often attributed towards this production there is no doubt that  Coke Studio’s foremost contribution to the Pakistani society would be the singular way in which its melodies are invoking historical memory in cultural terms.  This program’s widespread popularity  [2]is hardly surprisingly since music is intrinsically associated with religion in South Asia in complex ways. The various expressions of popular South Asian Islamic religiosity, articulated in the forms of devotional poetry, sufi-kalams, kaafis, qawwalis, naats, marsiyas, manqabats clearly point towards the coextensive nature of music and religion in the popular religious culture. The musical recitations of such kalaam and qawwali have been described as ‘a religious practice’ but one in which it is ‘impossible to separate music from religion, religion from music’ (Newell 2007). However inspite of the widespread popularity and resonance of such narratives, they have been until recently relegated as ‘backward’ forms of culture’ and ‘inauthentic Islam’ in the public discourse dominated by orthodox Islam and elite representations. Many times such devotional music is described simply as popular culture not as ‘religion’ given the contentious relationship of the Islamist orthodoxy with music, which is seen as being ‘un-Islamic’.  Continue reading

‘Twitterization’ of Pakistan’s Digital Public Sphere

Demonstrators in San Francisco, USA show solidarity with protesters in Egypt, February 2011. Photo by Steve Rhodes (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Given the array of online communication tools which facilitate informal and instantaneous sharing,  internet users in Pakistan are proactively shaping media flows  and personalizing social media platforms to better serve their interests, increasingly for political uses.  Consequently the ‘twitterization’ or ‘a high level of politicization on social media forums’ (Chang-Chang 2012: 45 ), can be readily witnessed across the digital media in Pakistan. Such politicization of the digital sphere is not consciously  organized but id mostly inadvertent.  Because uncertainty is a governing feature of political and social existence in Pakistan, the eagerness for constant official and unofficial political updates and discussion is one of it’s most apparent symptoms.  This is so possibly because  social digital networks can have ‘agentative political implications’ for people individually and collectively even if they self-consciously ‘place themselves out of institutional politics’ (Castells 2012: 193).


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‘Anarkali Apnay Disco Chali’

This wonderful article by Paromita Vohra was originally published here


Like many who work in films, I often get emails or messages from aspiring actors. I find this a saddening experience, because the desperation is so palpable. But it’s also interesting because it often reveals the kind of stereotypes that society and media feed back into each other. To give an example, one gentleman told me he looked “bilkul kameena” and so, would make an excellent villain.

More recently I received a message from a female actor who, laying out proof of her versatility said she’d done an ‘arty’ film in which her character was absolutely de-glam. So de-glam was the character, that she wore only salwar kameez throughout the film. Another young actor had called this look “ekdum simpal normal.” A man once described an old girlfriend to me as “very regular, salwar kameez type.” Continue reading

Popular Religion as Entertainment

In the media portrayals, the actual popular religion is sometimes reduced to a caricature of the colorful diversity it exhibits in actual reality. Many times representations of the what is passed off as popular religion or the ‘religion of the masses’ are in reality popular entertainment using the religious idiom to enhance credibility and viewership at the same time, being misrepresentations as such. Such entertainment entails indulgence in frivolous activities such as public conversions to Islam[1], adoptions of babies as an act of piety [2] or talking to spirits on live television [3] etc .  A common refrain that is publicly articulated and presented as a justification for such ‘religious entertainment’ is the need to introduce quotidian narratives in the media in order to wrest Islam back from the orthodox, extremists who have gained excessive visibility over the past few decades. This is consequently done by showcasing choreographed so-called ‘religious’ narratives, often seen as an antidote to extremist agenda. Continue reading