In 2014, Chup Raho was a popular Pakistani television drama about a young girl, Rameen, who is raped by her brother-in-law and forced to keep silent about the incident. The story revolves around the pain Rameen has to endure as a consequence of an episode that is still largely associated with shame and guilt in South Asian societies. That is, shame and guilt on the part of the victim.
Pakistani artist Remal Arif, inspired by the same name – Chup Raho translates to “be quiet” – has put her thoughts in a series of illustrations that portray the harsh realities of women who have, for generations, been silenced by men.
Eighteen year-old Arif, who grew up in the city of Karachi, Asia’s so-called “city of lights”, says her art is “a language that speaks about customs, traditions, power, feminism, breaking unwritten laws, and expressing the unspoken truth of our society that is often neglected.”
She is using the same phrase that is used to silence women – Chup Raho – to spread awareness of the injustices, barbarism, misogyny, and sexism that women in South Asia are forced to deal with, often on a daily basis.
A hand around a woman’s neck to indicate brutality through the act of strangulation; another woman hiding herself, her shame and her sadness behind a curtain; a third woman stifled by an unidentified hand; and a fourth with a princess crown on her head and red tape covering her mouth; they are all part of Arif’s Chup Raho series.
Her characters, usually dark-haired women, are almost always in bold red lipstick, wear jewelry, and sometimes even have their heads covered in a veil. Violent elements such as female infanticide, “honor” killing, rape, domestic violence, early death, acid attacks, harassment, enforced dowry payments, and early marriage are themes she likes to work around. Themes that are common in South Asian countries like Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.
Arif’s art invites men to ask the women in their lives about their problems, and in order to do this, she adopts an unusual creative process.
Her illustrations are essentially of herself, but showing another person’s pain. She stands in front of her mirror to imagine and feel the anxiety, trauma, and sadness of another woman and takes a photograph with her mobile phone while expressing those emotions. She then uses her own picture as a reference and her imagination to illustrate the women in her work. Arif draws freehand on her low-budget cell phone, without the use of a stylus, while lying on her favorite couch at home.
Earlier this month, illustrations from her Chup Raho series were exhibited at The Flying Dutchman, a venue in London that provides new and emerging artists a space to exhibit their work, especially if they are related to gender and diversity.
“What will people say” is one of the most common, most fundamental problems that make sure taboos remain intact. In fact, a 2017 movie by the same name revolves around a sixteen year-old Pakistani girl, Nisha, living in Norway whose father catches her in bed with her boyfriend (which he says is against their culture) and subsequently orders her to marry him. When she refuses, he kidnaps her and packs her off to Pakistan to live with relatives who practically enslave her.
Last week, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) issued a statement to television channels asking them not to air controversial dramas because “they are not depicting (a) true picture of Pakistani society … Indecent scenes/ dialogues, extra marital relations, violence, inappropriate dressing, rape scenes, caressing, bed scenes, use of drugs and alcohol, intimate moments between couples are being glamorized in utter disregard to Pakistani culture and values.” PEMRA even banned the American reality TV show Naked and Afraid that requires a man and woman to survive in the wilderness without anything, including their clothes.
In 2016, social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch was killed in cold blood by her brother for being “too bold” and speaking her mind. He confessed to the crime saying, “she was bringing disrepute to our family’s honor and I could not tolerate it any further.”
To some women, though, Baloch is an inspiration who encouraged them to fight for the right to live life on their own terms. Baaghi, a biographical television series based on Baloch’s life became very popular in 2017.
Even in the hit 2013 Pakistani television drama series Zindagi Gulzar Hai, the female protagonist’s father divorces her mother for giving birth to three girls and marries another woman who bears him a son. Leading a far-from-comfortable life, the three daughters are raised single-handedly by their mother without financial or emotional support from their father. Unlike many young girls, they are sent school and through the course of their own lives they learn not to depend on men, least of all their father, for anything.
Luckily for Arif, she was raised in a family where the birth of a girl was not considered to be ill fortune. She is one of four children, three sisters and a brother, and their mother never favored any of them, let alone discriminated against them.
“There were many people who were against my parents (for educating us). But my parents enrolled us in one of the best private schools and provided us with all the facilities. Many people used to advise them to not waste such money on us, but seriously now they admire us,” Arif told Asia Times.
Though the more overt parts of her artwork lie in depicting the cruel realities of the common woman of South Asia, she said that her women characters are also strong for sustaining these cruelties while fighting for equality and fairness.
“I want to encourage women to live their lives instead of just existing. The characters in my work are the shades of people telling their stories that society doesn’t allow them to tell,” Arif said