As a society, you’d think that by now we would have moved on beyond certain basic prejudices—the earth is round, using a scissor during an eclipse won’t jinx an unborn baby, drinking water with your left hand holding the glass won’t send you to hell.
We’re meant to be more civilised now, aren’t we? We have speedy buses, no trees, lots of concrete, everyone has a cell phone—all the markers of modernity we identify with.
We also have so much more exposure to the rest of the world now—we have a thousand cable t.
v channels, a thousand fashion bloggers, 4G internet on our phones.
Everyone manages to travel a bit, eat some fancy food, watch the television shows.
We pride ourselves on fighting terrorism with fashion and are nationally obsessed with presenting a “soft image” of Pakistan to the world.
But when it comes to young women, that all flies out the window.
When it comes to young women, we pack up our iPhones and pull out the homing pigeons, push our cars off the Ravi bridge and buy a camel, flush our toothbrushes down the toilet, cut a stick of miswaak and dig an outhouse pit.
In other words, when it comes to young people living their life we aren’t modern or outward looking or even remotely logical: it’s all pure, knee-jerk patriarchy, coming to us live from 1504.
It seems that we can’t really let our girls be.
We just can’t let go, and so joining the ranks of the publically mocked is Saheefa Khattak, a model who was in Khaadi’s recent denim campaign.
Apparently a lot of people have a lot of problems with her shoot.
Why, you must wonder.
Is she killing baby animals in it? Is she doing drugs? Is she scantily clad or posing suggestively? Is she endorsing child labour or domestic abuse? Nope.
She has short hair.
That’s the problem.
Her hair is short, cut in what is often called a pixie cut—an unmistakably feminine way to wear your hair close to your head.
It’s apparently such a monumental problem that Khattak had to take to social media to protest the comments she’s been receiving.
On the verge of tears at some points in the video she’s made, a fresh-faced Khattak, wearing a baseball cap on her head to cover her oiled hair, indignantly says she isn’t a shalwar-kameez kind of girl, but she’s also someone who has never intentionally been cruel to anyone and can’t understand how having short hair can make anyone the target of such vitriol.
But this is Pakistan, and even if you survive being shot in the head people are still going to talk smack about you, and it’s primarily because you’re a woman, and you Should Not Be Allowed.
Women are not allowed to deviate from the set of norms they are allowed to operate in, and young ladies should be thin, fair, demure and have long hair.
If you’re all that and a doctor, then you’re pure gold.
But there is apparently something so unnerving, so astoundingly shocking about a woman with short hair that people just can’t stand it.
In her video, Khattak talks about the harassment she faces every day with her cropped hair.
Policemen nudge each other and point at her when she’s at a red light.
People do double-takes.
And now that she’s in a national photoshoot the internet has exploded in disgust and shock and outrage.
What kind of insane world do we live in? A homogenised, nauseating little vacuum where everyone must behave and look the same.
It’s pertinent to mention here that this is relevant to women the most, because there are plenty of male models with long hair, or models that have worn feminine clothes on catwalks right here in Pakistan but other than a few memes you don’t see any of them being excoriated the way Khattak has been.
It feels strange to some when men dress in a feminine way, but nobody is using it as the basis to question their right to exist either.
That’s because the rules don’t exist to control men and their bodies, the rules are there only for the women and their bodies.
All it takes is one ad campaign, with one, slightly different looking girl, for all our inherent misogyny to come hurtling out like a bullet.
Khattak doesn’t even have a radical haircut, as far as edgy hair goes.
There’s no Mohawk or side-shave or neon punk colours; it’s just a shaggy little haircut.
So what’s the problem? Is it a woman trespassing onto masculine territory? If girls start wearing their hair short, does it make men look like girls? Does this all boil down, Freudian, to a deep-seated terror men have of being perceived as feminine, or being unseated by women? It’s doubly mystifying, coming as we do from a culture where men wore churidar pyjamas and jewelry as much as women did at one point.
A baanka was basically a desi Beau Brummell, and it was perfectly fine to be jeweled, in silks, eyes kohled up, sword slung casually across.
But those were different times, a different country and a history that we have done everything we can to pretend never existed for us.
Nothing before 1947 belongs to us.
What would our pious little public do, I wonder, if they had to encounter Benetton-like advertisements that celebrate race, and feature models from diverse ethnicities? Since nobody reads much or thinks too critically about anything, our upper and middle classes are largely impervious to class or gender politics in advertising (or real life).
The people who brush off sexism, sexual assault, pay gaps, women’s access to healthcare etc.
as trivial little problems are the same people who have attacked a model for not conforming to their idea of femininity, which is in fact a trivial little problem.
Is the length of someone’s hair really more deserving of outrage, or acid attacks? What does that tell us about the way we think? On one hand you can casually ignore honour killings and on the other a girl with short hair is making you murderous? The hypocrisy of it is breathtaking.
Our society only rouses itself to lynch blasphemers and to police women: making sure everyone obeys.
Our lives, our deaths and everything in between is just static noise: what matters is the appearance of things.
So be it a billboard or a drama serial, the women must be shiny and pink-lipped, their long curling hair falling down their backs as they cheerfully cook or mournfully bear their troubles, eternally grateful, forever compromising.
Knowable, in short.
Nothing mysterious or unsettling about a stereotype, which is why deviance seems to be so terrifying.