Film, feminism, sexuality and Pakistan

Pakistani filmmaker Anam Abbas

Filmmaker Anam Abbas doesn’t subscribe to self-victimisation. It’s a topic that springs up regularly in her work though. In fact, whether it’s her feature documentary, Zunn: Showgirls of Pakistan, or the popular web series, Ladies Only, Abbas positions her protagonists as the opposite of victims, or rather, as people who know their ground, who exude uninhibited confidence in times of adversity. I’m in a position of a lot of privilege, and I can’t feel helpless because I have complete independence,” explains Abbas. “I’m making a living on my own. I’m educated, I have lots of opportunities in Pakistan. If I get depressed and hopeless, then they’ve won.”

The ‘they’, which Abbas fights against, are composed of various segments of the population, including state and non-state actors — groups that agitate their agenda through extreme methods and decide what’s acceptable for a woman in Pakistani society. A woman’s sexuality, how little or how much she covers herself — components of a patriarchal culture — are constructed, according to Abbas, within a very narrow prism. “You have mullahs desecrating billboards featuring women. Their eyes and/or mouths are blacked out.”

The conundrum of female sexuality in Pakistan can seem perplexing to the untrained, un-Pakistani eye. On one hand it’s a highly conservative environment, but at the same time, there’s overt sexuality at the forefront of Pakistani society, for example in the form of mujra dancing. Mujras became mainstream during the Mughal rule in India. Mujra performances, according to Abbas, are a form of low-brow burlesque. They’re pervasive across dozens of theatres in Punjab, and the rest of the country. They’re allowed, and legal, and are frequented by all sectors of society — from the rich to the poor.

A promotional shot from Showgirls of Pakistan — courtesy Anam Abbas

Abbas has made films featuring mujras — a space where she, as a woman, felt comfortable, wasn’t perceived as a threat, and had full access to the performers, which included women and also transgendered individuals. The in-your-face-sexuality which mujra performances conjure up, can seem like a strange dichotomy for the western viewer. For example, when Abbas tried pitching her work to a documentary festival in Toronto, she was advised to change the narrative of her strong female-centric work to “bad brown man versus the victimized brown Muslim woman.” This attitude frustrates Abbas. She says, “Pakistan is more than just acid throwing and “honour” killing. The population of Karachi is equal to roughly the entire population of Canada.” That, Abbas says, naturally adds complexities to the fabric of Pakistan.

The narrative that’s expected by the West is starkly different to the realities, and at times the message has to be watered down. “You have to make it a simpler narrative,” says Abbas. Mujra performers undergo a multi-layered, complex narrative, that isn’t easily saleable. Abbas says she got into filmmaking to relay truthful stories about women and people on the peripheries in Pakistan, and not just to present dumbed down versions of what a different audience might expect.

Making films is more than just a passion project for Abbas, and she is proud of self-financing her work. “I’ve been working with no money, and with my friends. In that way, I want to expand the scope of the kind of woman I’m representing, but at the same time, I don’t want to force it.”

As far as future projects are concerned, a documentary about the murdered social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch is in the works. For years, Abbas was part of the Toronto International Film Festival, while studying at the University of Toronto and Sheridan College. Now she is at the forefront in organising of this year’s I am Karachi Film Festival. Being in Karachi keeps Abbas grounded, as she surrounds herself with the grassroots community in the city.

“I get Pakistan,” asserts Abbas, and goes on to explain, “this is where I get angry, this is where my blood boils.” In a landscape that is rife with contradictions and anomalies, Abbas feels at home in Pakistan. Despite having lived in the West for many years, she’s chosen to work in her homeland, because that’s where she feels most inspired.