Earlier this week, Brandeis hosted a lecture by Sophya Khwaja sponsored by the programs in South Asian studies and history of ideas. Khwaja, a Pakistani artist who was born and raised in Pakistan, focused on the restrictions placed on the female body and the artworks of contemporary female artists from Pakistan who challenge these restrictions and celebrate the female form.
Khwaja initiated her discussion by elaborating on the current issues in Pakistan regarding the conflicting traditional values and the impact that they have on women. She provided information about the Hudood Ordinance, which was established in 1977. It included a clause in the constitution that made adultery and rape punishable by death, but the limitations in the clause make proving rape and providing sufficient evidence practically impossible. In 2003, 80 percent of women in Pakistani jails were there because they failed to prove charges of rape and were consequently charged with adultery.
According to Khwaja, current-day Pakistan has been flung into a technologically advanced age. However, it is still behind in regards to policies surrounding technology. For example, even though 90 percent of people live below the poverty line, about 70 percent own a cellular device. Recently, legislation placed a ban on cheaper plan packages because the constant communication allegedly encourages youth to engage in immoral behavior.
Khawaja also presented artwork created by female Pakistani artists tackling the issues of identity and selfhood and taking on the aforementioned issues. The first image was a painting of a cow climbing what appeared to be a phone tower. It was twisted away, looking downward in distress. According to Khwaja, the cow was meant to depict Pakistan wanting to move forward while still trying to retain its traditional values. The discomfort of the cow could mean many things, such as the distrust of modern-day technology or a fear of change and advancement that could pose a threat to those traditional values.
Much of the art work that Khwaja showed was focused on female attire in Pakistan. Khwaja described how the endorsed clothing restricts movement. It signifies telling a woman she cannot go to work, cannot operate certain machinery and must remain indoors. In short, the religious dress code dictates the status of women.
The main article of clothing discussed was the burqa, a traditional form of dress that covers a woman’s full body, including face, with a small opening for the eyes. Some women find wearing the burqa empowering because they can avoid certain things such as the “male gaze.” Khwaja stated that the feeling of empowerment is temporary and in the short run might seem beneficial, but the implications in the long run are serious. “We only veil things we wish to unveil at some point,” Khwaja said, which means that the burqa renders women a mysterious entity desired to be unraveled by the “male gaze.”
Her lecture was well received by the audience and a group of students who gathered after her lecture to speak with her and further the discourse.