On Tuesday, Mukhtar Mai walked the fashion runway in Karachi, Pakistan. Fourteen years ago, Mai was gang-raped and paraded naked under the diktat of a local council of tribal elders. This was because her brother had supposedly insulted a rival family.
Mai went public about what had happened to her and pursued the case all the way to the Supreme Court till the accused were convicted and jailed. Walking the ramp, she has said, was an act of courage.
Beauty pageants have conventionally been about pitting one woman against the other, measuring good looks against a standard that is dictated by corporate interests, and objectifying the female body in ways that reduce a person to the sum of her body parts. And with the pageant culture come eating disorders, surgeries and botox injections.
So it's no wonder that feminists across the world have criticized beauty pageants and protested against all that they stand for. In her documentary, "The World Before Her", which is on the state of women in India, Nisha Pahuja brilliantly captures some of these reasons by showcasing the Miss India pageant contestants and the indignities and stress that they are put through, even as pageants strive to appear as a "liberal" and "modern" platform.
But how do we read a woman like Mai choosing the very same platform? And it's not just her. In September, acid attack survivors, including an Indian woman named Lakshmi, did a fashion pageant in London at the Hilton Waldorf Hotel. In the same month, Reshma Bano Qureshi, another Indian woman, walked the ramp at the New York Fashion Week. What these women have done is to turn the gaze on its head.
In the conventional fashion pageant, the power rests with the people who are looking. It's they who decide which body is perfect, which is not. Body, not person.
Women like Mai, Lakshmi, and Reshma are survivors of incidents of gender-based violence that expose society's ugliness. They are not the faces we want to look at during a pleasant social evening, champagne glasses in hand.
What these women are doing is to dare the public to turn its gaze towards them and acknowledge its collective failure in preventing such ghastly incidents. The power rests with them, the ones who are looked at, and so does the ownership of their bodies. The walk is a shedding of victimhood.
The ramp, like any other symbol of oppression, can be subverted and these women have shown us just how it can be done. And in style.