Disclaimer: The opinions and experiences expressed in this article are the author’s own and are not necessarily representative of The LACAS Chronicles.
One of my most vivid childhood memories goes like this: I am nearly three years old. I am in the backseat of a moving car. I look outside and count trees. I point at red cars. I try to memorize the numbers off as many license plates as my eyes can hold.
And then we stop at a traffic light. And I crane my neck upwards. A billboard bigger than my house, I think. Advertising soap or washing powder or Coca Cola. All I remember is the face of a smiling woman.
Except I think she’s smiling. I can’t see. There is black paint where her face should be. There are no teeth, no eyes, no hair. Erased. Not neatly, either: the paint job showed malice — as if someone went over her again and again and again and again so no one would ever know what she looked like — as if to say, look here, this is what happens to bad women who let their faces up on billboards. Drink your Coke and buy your soap and stock up on your washing powder and be invisible.
This was seventeen years ago.
Two days ago, feminist artists came together in Islamabad to fill bare walls with messages of freedom and solidarity. When they were done, two solemn, confident women populated what used to be a blank canvas: a woman in a headscarf with her arm around another with short hair. Around the same time, feminist organizers in Lahore came together and put posters on walls, messages of sisterhood, solidarity, and freedom.
And then they came — again. With their signature black paint and fists and threats. How dare women occupy public spaces? How dare women be visible? They tore posters off walls and defaced them. They completed the unfinished mural: black holes where faces should be — decorated with exclamations of ‘na-manzoor, na-manzoor, na-manzoor’— unacceptable. Unacceptable. Unacceptable. As if to say, this is what happens to visible women.
Your visibility is unacceptable. Your courage is unacceptable. This is a painting, this is a poster, and you can be next.
You are next.
All just two days ago.
In all twenty years of my existence, the face of a woman has provoked rage. She is bad if she is on a billboard; on a wall; holding a paintbrush; holding a placard — if she is holding anything but a blunt kitchen knife; a cup of tea; her dupatta over her head. She will be asked to sit pretty in front of a camera and debate her humanity. She will be asked to explain — very politely — why she should have autonomy over her own body; why she should not be harassed, raped, or killed. And then she will be vilified. This woman will be perceived as a greater public threat than has-been pop stars and mediocre YouTubers — all accused of sexual harassment — intimidating victims of abuse. She will be dragged in the court of public opinion by fans of deranged, average-at-best writers who hurl abuses on national television.
And this is just what happens to privileged women: women like you and your mothers, who sit in the back of air conditioned Corollas with tinted windows and Bluetooth sound systems. Women on billboards. Women who can be out at night to paint walls. Women with verified twitter accounts and fancy degrees and big-name awards.
In twenty years, not much has changed. Change will not come sit at our feet on carpeted bedroom floors. It will not knock on our doors while we tweet for justice for Zainab, for Maliha, for Jannat. It did not come with our quiet rage for Mukhtaran Mai. For true justice, we must march. For true change — progressive laws, social awareness and public conversation — we must make our voices heard. You should march because you can: your privilege makes it your responsibility to act. Because no matter who we are, our collective reality is fear. Whether we are nineteen year old university students or six year old hijab-wearing children. March for them. For us. For privileged women whose chaar diwaris still echo with domestic abuse. For women working three jobs to support their children. For women murdered at 25 by forced pregnancies. For women who have to work twice as hard as their male counterparts only to receive a fraction of due recognition and money. For women whose rapists are acquitted in the court of law. For women who would be here today if they were not killed for honour. For women made invisible, erased, and silenced.
March so your three year old daughter doesn’t see billboards of women’s faces decorated with black paint. So she doesn’t feel shame she is not supposed to feel. Do not let her body and mind become public property. Don’t just march for liberation, march for justice. If you think your privilege makes you untouchable — you’re wrong. Just ask your rich aunt.
The writer, Vaneeza Jawad, is the former Editor-in-Chief of The LACAS Chronicles. She is currently a History major at LUMS.