Meet Maliha Abidi Abbas, the artist working to challenge the discourse surrounding Pakistani women
- 15 March 2019
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“At a very early age, I was drawn to colors and the idea of filling any surface, whether it be a canvas, a wall, a piece of paper, with my ideas and whatever I’d like. That is probably the most attractive aspect of drawing or every writing. Nothing feels better than seeing a blank canvas which foreshadows possibilities,” Maliha Abidi Abbas tells MuslimGirl.com.
In this case, the promise of a blank canvas led this talented young artist to illustrate and author “Pakistan for Women,” a series of 50 portraits of noteworthy Pakistani women, side-by-side with their often overlooked, yet groundbreaking, stories.
When prompted, Maliha goes on to explain, “I have been creating art for as long as I can remember but I started posting online back in 2012, and that is when I professionally started working as an artist.” She continues, “I have worked with companies like Adobe, U.N. Women, and the Peace Corps under the umbrella of women’s empowerment as that is the topic I like to work with.” Reflecting upon this impressive résumé, it seems as if Maliha was destined to deliver “Women For Pakistan,” this ultimate project of empowerment, to her eager and enthusiastic fanbase.
In recent days, a quick Google search will show that her name has swiftly become synonymous with highlighting the stories of notable female role models from around the globe. At the outset, it is abundantly clear that with the publishing of “Pakistan for Women,” Maliha aims to directly challenge the heavily tokenized and stereotyped image of the “oppressed” Pakistani woman, and truly, she has done this goal justice.
As a concept, the idea of this book may seem simple, yet the ramifications are massive. It is shocking that “Pakistan for Women” is the first of its kind, because highlighting the achievements of Pakistani women to combat the discourse of a stereotyped Pakistani woman is, perhaps, more important now than ever before. However, through her wide-ranging selection of Pakistani women, Maliha is able to highlight the contributions of Pakistani women in a myriad of fields, from arts and entertainment, to civil service and social work. So given that this book is the first of its kind, what piques my curiosity is how the idea of this project came about:
“I have always been working on art that focuses on women’s empowerment,” Maliha states. “If you pick up and look at some of my oldest works, I do series of 7-10 pieces which showcase a certain culture, or strong figures. But this time, I wanted to do an extensive series. I had 15 portraits in mind, but when I started to make a list of all the women that I can include, my list grew from 15 and could have easily reached 1000 names. [Eventually] it hit me that since I like to write as well, why not create a book? Even when I post something on social media, they are followed by long captions because I like to write, so this time I wanted to combine my love for art and my love for writing, and create something like this book [“Pakistan for Women”] and Alhamdulillah I did,” Maliha explains to me.
Currently a Neuroscience student in Brighton, England, Maliha’s childhood boasts quite the global experience. She was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, and at the age of 14, she moved to none other than the Golden State, California. At 21, she then moved to the United Kingdom. Her various Instagram pages show a keen penchant for travel and experiencing different cultures, so I couldn’t help but wonder whether she feels like her myriad of experiences have shaped her identity, and thus, her sources of inspiration:
“My identity is made of many things. I am a Muslim girl, born and raised in South Asia, who moved to America in her teenage years. So, I come from, and represent, several cultures, I’d like to think. I was born in Pakistan, but a huge part of my identity comes from India as well, because of my family. I saw my grandfather actively write letters in Hindi to his friends and family in India. I saw my grandmother visiting India often. My father was born there in 1963, way after the partition, so that makes me half-Indian. As a brown, Muslim girl, I always try to stay true to my identity and so I draw and paint the issues I see in my society, or stand up for the things I believe in. I also like to portray strong women through my art who come from the same culture as me. Moreover, I like to portray the positive side of my culture and heritage through colors and images so that people around the world who think a certain way about South Asia or Muslims, their perspective changes a little.”
Speaking of challenging perspectives, I zero-in on one of the portraits Maliha illustrated for “Pakistan for Women”: That of Malala Yousafzai. To the few who may not be aware, Malala garnered overnight media attention when a Taliban gunman targeted the teen in a cowardly attack. Her crime? Being a dissenting voice; a figure of resistance against the Taliban’s tyrannical rule which saw girls and young women banned from receiving an education, and at a certain point in time, even from being out in public. In the aftermath of this heinous crime and Malala’s subsequent relocation to England, a divide erupted between those who supported Malala in her crusade for education, and those who inexplicably despised Malala for depicting Pakistan in a supposedly negative light. As an individual who has been involved in one to many heated discussions with people who foster “Malala-hate,” I ask Maliha how she would respond if confronted by a purveyor of the insanely ubiquitous Malala-hate narrative, given her goal of accentuating the great achievements and relentless dedication of the Pakistani women featured in her book. Her answer certainly doesn’t disappoint:
“I have been in that situation, and it’s okay if someone doesn’t agree with me, or doesn’t find a woman like Malala inspiring. What’s not okay is them not having the full information. I always tell them that they should learn more about her journey, because the hate mainly derives from the fact that she left Pakistan after being attacked by the Taliban, and many people do not see that as something she should be praised for.”
Maliha continues, “My point, when it comes to Malala, is simple. First, learn about her story, and then put yourself in her situation. What would you do if you were attacked, in your own country, after you were brave enough to stand up against the fact that your right to an education was taken away? If Malala is able to do good for society by being outside of Pakistan, not just for Pakistan, but for millions of others around the globe, then what is the problem? Malala has been able to do great things for the betterment of girls and their education.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
“One last thing,” Maliha insists, “in Pakistan, there are many people who love and support her and some who don’t. That is the case with every hero who ever lived.”
And on that note, I observe that in some cases, ambitious girls are held back by cultural norms for fear of them not having what it takes to be like the many women Maliha elevates in “Pakistan for Women”. Does she have any advice for girls like that, I wonder?
“I agree with your observation because I have seen that in different cultures myself too, and that is where empathy, or we as a society should come together. If a girl faces discouragement in pursuing anything they are passionate about, they need to deal with the situation depending on the person who is discouraging them. If it is your parents, I’d say make them understand why it is important to you, and make a deal with them that they believe in you for a while, and if it doesn’t pan out, then you will be convinced [that this wasn’t meant for you]. Otherwise, they should support you all the way. If it is someone else, like a random aunty or a relative, PLEASE, oh please, do not care. People like to say stuff. How I stay focused and confident in what I am doing is by thinking that today they are talking about me negatively, tomorrow they’ll talk about someone else because they legit have nothing better to do. Believe in yourself, help yourself first, get started on what thrills you, and maybe sometimes, be a bit rebellious,” she adds sheepishly.
While Maliha proclaims that she has been lucky enough to have received nothing but support from her original feminist hero, her father, she makes it clear that “Pakistan for Women,” this massive achievement, didn’t come easy. In a tale of hard work and dedication reminiscent of the profiles in her book, she tells me of how the art supplies she used for this project were funded through her weekend work and the employee discount from the Art store she works at. “I drew every portrait with my hand, wrote every story myself, pulled many all-nighters, and drank a billion cups of coffee. Alhamdulillah for the [overwhelmingly positive] response [to the book], and Allah knows how much of me went into this!” she exclaims.
Cutting a truly inspirational figure through her determination to highlight the pivotal, yet often overlooked stories of the Pakistani women in her book, I ask Maliha if she has anymore nuggets of advice for our MuslimGirl.com readers: “Yes. This book is the first book of its kind in a country like Pakistan, but such stories exist everywhere. I encourage young artists to start such projects through their talents. No matter if you are a writer, poet, artist, traveler; whatever you are, you can contribute to these causes and empower others through your voice and medium. Thanks to social media, we all have a platform; let’s contribute to the change.”
In the meantime, as “Pakistan for Women” continues on its monumentally successful path, Maliha tells me that after all is said and done, she remains dedicated to the cause that has informed her art since the very beginning: The love of women’s empowerment, and the different cultures she encounters. And can’t we all agree, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the world is better for it?