Women in Green: Spotlight on Mahwash Rehman

DSC_32-0383Maria

Today I’d like to recognize my friend Mahwash Rehman, an advocate for women’s equality and a very talented photographer. Mahwash took the time to talk to me about her thesis project on the Pakistan Women’s Cricket Team.  On her artist’s statement page, where you can view a slideshow of her photographs, she explains the significance of this project:

“Although the Pakistan’s Men’s Cricket dates back to the inception of Pakistan (1947), the idea of having a Women’s Cricket team was first conceived and executed in 1996 and was severely challenged. The women’s team faced many barriers, including government restrictions and court cases primarily on religious grounds.

Today, eighteen years later, Cricket is seen as a big step forward in women’s rights in Pakistan, an acknowledgment that Pakistani women can stand parallel to men in any field. Through their untiring commitment and resolve, the women cricketers proved their mettle and were crowned Asian champions in the 2010 Asian games, and the team is now ranked as one of the top teams in the world.”

How did you become interested in women’s empowerment and advocacy?

Growing up in Pakistan, there were always certain things that I witnessed in our society but didn’t speak about-I was always bothered by the fact that women were expected to behave in a certain way and assume particular roles. I didn’t realize I was so passionate about giving voice to these issues until much later. Sometimes you do things on a subconscious level. I come from a business background, and when I started my artistic endeavor [at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, in Karachi Pakistan], I discovered a lot about myself and what I wanted to express. I began to notice that I always tended to focus on women subjects. Be it a fashion photography project or paintings I collected at home, or my major inspirations in life, I realized almost all of them were about women. So there were things that I did that I didn’t realize the motivation behind until later.

Why did you decide to pursue this particular project?

Generally you associate cricket with men and it is a male-dominated sport. The idea that no one knew that women’s team even existed bothered me. I wanted to show that Pakistani women can assume strong, non-traditional roles. Also, because of the fact that most people in Pakistan generally are also not very supportive of girls getting into athletics at this level, because they want them to maintain their looks, I thought it was brave of these women to go against the social norms and negate the mere ‘soft pretty’ image of a Pakistani woman. This motivated me to work with these women.

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What was your personal response when you found out there was a Pakistani women’s cricket team?

To be honest, I always knew they existed, but I never followed them regularly. I didn’t keep up with their matches or anything like that, because they didn’t get much media coverage. There was not much coverage of their win in the 2010 Asian games either.

What were other responses to the news of a Pakistani women’s cricket team?

People were surprised. Most of them didn’t know they existed.
I wasn’t sure how I was going to get access to the team if I took up the project-but after I saw the responses from people I was adamant and thought, “I have to do this.”  I met Madam Bushra Aitzaz (Chairman of the Pakistan Women’s Wing, PCB) and shared my thoughts with her. She got excited about the idea that I was planning on doing my thesis project on these women. She was very supportive and granted me access to the field. I promoted the project in Pakistan through IVS and the project was widely appreciated. I also shared the copy of the project with Madam Bushra Aitzaz as well as with all the players involved.

Later my advisor encouraged me to send it to local newspapers, but to my surprise none of them seemed interested in publishing it. Most of the time it’s pretty easy to get things published in Pakistan if you have anything interesting to share.  Since I was the first person to have worked on Pakistan’s women cricket team, I could not think of a reason why my work wouldn’t get published.

I am trying to showcase the project in Houston as well, so I could share a positive story on women in Pakistan. So far, I used my blog and my public Facebook page to get recognition for this project.

A lot of people shared the project on the net and [commented saying things like] ‘unsung heroes of Pakistan’, the power of Green and like. It’s clear that people want to know more about these women.

How did you cross the boundary from photographing the women on the field to off the field?

Over time, I developed friendships with them and eventually got to see them at home to learn more about their families and personal lives. I found that all of their families were very supportive and proud of them but at the same time very traditional. Like any concerned traditional parents, they were cautious and apprehensive where the pictures were going to be used. I had to meet and reassure their parents that I was doing a positive story on women and won’t misuse the images in any regard. Some of the parents wanted their daughters to appear in the photos only in the uniform.

How did they balance the social and cultural pressures that you mention they still felt after reaching their goal of becoming professional cricketers?

I felt they were constantly juggling different roles. They showed the required confidence and boldness outside of the home, but, I believe, felt constant pressure to be mindful of their behavior because they were responsible for the reputation of the family and of their country. Some of them dressed more conservatively at home and embraced all of their religious customs as well.

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How did the women’s personalities and attitudes on the team vary? Did they have similar perspectives on their chosen careers?

I felt there was diversity within the team as well. Most of the team members are well educated. While some come from moderate families-not too traditional and not very liberal either, others come from more conservative [backgrounds].

There is a very interesting image of the Captain’s closet, where you hardly see any shalwar kameez [traditional Pakistani women’s clothing] which is unlike most Pakistani female wardrobes. Still there were other team members who loved dressing up in feminine clothing, putting on makeup, etc.

For sure, all of these women are bold enough to think out of the box, but interestingly it doesn’t seem like rebellion. [Though their families are concerned about how they are seen in the public eye, they are extremely supportive and proud of them].

How did these women end up choosing to be professional cricketers?

They had watched and followed cricket teams from around the world, and they expressed that they had always wanted to be cricketers. They are very passionate about what they do and you can tell they love [cricket] as they practically live cricket. You will find cricket bat/stuff lying in their closets, by their side tables, literally everywhere in their homes.

Also they don’t care about looking pretty on field, or if they get sunburned and their skin gets rough. They simply love what they do.

They love the opportunity to travel and get worldwide exposure. The only concern they expressed was the lack of media coverage and support.

These are beautiful images that capture much more than we have discussed. Is there one in particular that affects you more than the others?

There is one particular image that I like the best. It is a close up of the captain’s hand holding the cricket ball. It was one of my most popular images as well, as one can see the contrast between the harshness associated with the hard ball and the softness of the bangles (representing femininity). To me this image signifies Pakistani women’s strength of character and power, her self-belief and her ability to break the cultural taboos while holding on to traditions and her innate self.  I think it successfully encapsulates the underlying premise of the project.

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What was the best part of the project for you?

There are a lot of things that I’m trying to highlight in this project along with the underlying theme, and my imagery subtly shows the different issues involved.

I loved seeing the contrast in the players’ life on field and in their private spaces. Also, I am extremely obliged to them for putting trust in me and welcoming me to their homes, giving me an opportunity to experience the other side of their personalities. Spending time with these passionate, motivated and patriotic women was really fulfilling and I will always cherish the relationship I developed with them during the course of the project. Also I will have to acknowledge my advisor/mentor Amean J , whom I learned a lot from and whose constant support and guidance made this project possible.

Thank you Mahwash, for sharing your amazing experience!

Be sure to check out more of Mahwash’s work here and here!

More on the Pakistan Women’s Cricket Team

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