Aurat Raaj: How Women Are Leading The Photography Industry In Pakistan

Aurat Raaj: How Women Are Leading The Photography Industry In Pakistan
The photography industry had been primarily dominated by men for a very long time. Tapu Javeri, Irfan Ahson, Khawar Riaz, were all household names. But over the years, the industry began to shift, and soon, a new crop of photographers was taking over. These were self-taught young women, either in or recently out of college, and they all had one thing in common: their passion for photography.

For many years, our Instagram feeds were filled with well-thought out and curated photoshoots that weren't being done for any commercial uses, or any monetary gain, but simply because this was something that brought them joy. Overtime, their skill garnered enough attention for them to actually land brand deals, commercial work and wedding coverage gigs. And soon, these women became the household names we associated with the photography industry. Shayan Ather, Palwasha Minhaas, Sajal Sajjad, Tuba Afzal, Sara Idrees — the list is endless.

The relationship of women with photography has traditionally been one rife with sexist attitudes. Women have long been ridiculed for taking 'too many selfies', or wanting to photograph and Instagram everything. These acts have generally been looked down upon as 'frivolous' and insignificant by the very patriarchal society we live in. Even when a woman's interest in photography extends bathroom selfies, men love to question the seriousness of that interest by judging her knowledge of technical aspects of photography. There have been so many instances when while covering an event, male colleagues and friends have asked me if I'm shooting on 'auto or manual', insinuating that the difference between a real photographer and one who is an amateur is the setting their camera is on.

In this environment, where men love to hold women back, where being younger than the average demographic is seen as valid grounds for people to patronize you, the fact that so many young women have carved out not only a path for themselves, but have established themselves as big players in the game, is no small feat. Ask anyone and they will have heard of Natasha Zubair, who is quite possibly the one of Pakistan's leading fashion photographers at the moment, or Izzah Shaheen Malik, better known by her Instagram handle 'Pictroizzah', who is one of Pakistan's most sought after wedding photographers.

It hasn't been an easy journey, and the imposter syndrome has been real, in many cases. Sometimes, men add to it by gaslighting and belittling you, which makes you doubt yourself. Izzah found herself at the receiving end of some of that gaslighting and harassment, when an established male photographer used inappropriate language towards her after the two had a disagreement on a WhatsApp group of photographers. Izzah recounted on her Instagram stories that none of the male photographers sided with her, and instead admonished Izzah for 'ruining his [the male photographer's] shot' by standing in the way. In reality, both photographers had been hired to cover the event, and had as much of a claim to be there as their counterpart. Speaking to The Friday Times, she said "For years we did suffer a lot, but now, no more. We don't stay silent when it comes to taking a stand for ourselves."

Natasha Zubair, who has been doing fashion photography professionally for more than five years now, agrees that initially it was, and it still is, difficult to be taken seriously. She said, "Some people assume that women don’t have full knowledge of their gear or the technical aspects of photography which is definitely not the case," adding that she has had to deal with condescending tones or unsolicited advice on how to use her camera by men who aren’t photographers. From how to use cameras, to photo-editing and retouching techniques, the chances of being mansplained to if you're a female photographer are very high. What's more, there is a disdain and dismissal associated with anyone who chooses to take an untraditional route and approach that differs from the norm.

Additionally, a career in photography brings certain challenges that culturally affect women more than they do men. For a brief period of time when I was in university, I started doing wedding photography. Since most wedding related events happen at night, my mother would stay up in a frenzy all night, worrying about me having to Uber to a random person's house, wondering if the people were going to be trustworthy, hoping I wouldn't get too late coming back home at night. These aren't entirely ill-founded concerns either, and there are certainly women whose families would object to the work hours that a career in photography demands sometimes.

Natasha says that while her journey may have been quicker if she had been a man, she has been grateful for all the highs and lows. "At the end of the day, you really don’t focus on the negative aspects. You’re just really happy to be where you are."

Although it's been slow, we must at least be grateful for the steadiness of this upwards trajectory and industry shift. To see an industry where women are not just leading the industry, but actively shaping it as they go along is pretty amazing for a country where the percentage of women in the labor force is a mere 20.16%. To that, all we can say is, all hail the aurat raaj.

Khadija Muzaffar is the culture editor at The Friday Times. Previously a Fulbright scholar at NYU, she enjoys writing about society, culture, music and food. She tweets at @khadijamuzaffar, but is far more interesting on Instagram.