This morning I watched a film called Good Morning Karachi. The film follows Rafina and her family. She lives with her mother and younger brother in Faisal Colony, a neighbourhood in Karachi. She spends a lot of time looking at a billboard across from her house, where there is a woman clad in yellow, hair floating in the air, a faint glossy smile on her face. Rafina stares at the billboard and dreams about having a job and “seeing a bit of the world”, as she puts it. Rosie khala (aunty), a neighbour, works at a beauty salon called Radiance. Rafina begs Rosie to take her there and let her be an assistant so she can learn. Rosie’s son, Arif, and Rafina like each other and they often go on drives around the city and talk about the future. Rafina’s mother and Rosie agree that their children should get married but first Rafina is offered the opportunity of working for two months at Radiance, after that the wedding will take place and she will no longer work but start a family with Arif. He is involved in politics and the atmosphere is getting quite heated in the city. Arif is eventually taken to prison and questioned because of his involvement.
At Radiance Rafina goes from making tea to being a model. She is excited about it and goes for it despite the opposition of her mother and Arif. Rosie doesn’t seem to think there is anything wrong with it but Rafina’s mother is worried. Throughout the film we get a feel of how tense the atmosphere in Karachi is through the radio show Good Morning Karachi. It is a useful device for the audience – especially if you’re not familiar with the city – to understand how Rafina’s choices are seen as defiant and maybe even dangerous.
Rafina is convinced that she wants to be a “modern woman, like the ones in Paris, New York and London”. She jokes with her younger brother that “modern women have cats as family”. Rafina has a family and she is offered a proposal of marriage by Arif, with the approval of both their mothers. But by choosing to become a model she jeopardises these things, especially her relationship with Arif. I couldn’t help seeing her as a victim: going from the hands of her family to the hands of her employers, who see her as a way to make money, not a person. I’m looking at this situation from a place where models are hardly ever presented as women who are in charge of their lives — or maybe that’s just my perception. I have often thought that the moment you sell your image to be manipulated and distributed you are no longer in charge of it. Being a model doesn’t seem like a way for a woman to take charge of her life, it doesn’t seem to be a way of being free. But watching this film stirred something in me, it unmasked many of my prejudices and assumptions of what it is to be a “modern woman”, as Rafina puts it.
There is a moment in the film where Rafina must decide whether she stays at a fashion show or goes to the funeral of someone close to her. She ends up staying and doing the fashion show, which is her big break. At this point I stood in judgement for a moment, how could she?! But when she went on the runway I was disarmed by the expression on her face: determined, strong, piercing eyes and confidence. It was beautiful. Later on, when the sun goes down and she realises she’s missed the funeral, she is walking on the street in tears. But she owns up to the consequences of her decision; she asks the hard questions “I missed the funeral. How could I?” and it is Jamal, the Radiance representative, who somehow tries to justify her actions, probably in an attempt at silencing his own conscience.
I wonder how many women in cities like Karachi dream of living the life of women in Western capitals. Rafina’s modelling career has little to do with this. I’m more interested in her picture of the modern woman; one who works, lives alone, makes decisions on her own, doesn’t marry… That is the picture Rafina has but most of all she wants to be free to make her own decisions, to do something that she is passionate about. I look at Rafina’s story from a place where I enjoy all the freedoms she would like to have. But I also struggle finding a place in society, knowing what it means to be a woman nowadays. I don’t even need to be modern, whatever that means.
So what does it mean to be a (modern) woman in Europe? Often it feels like the obstacles for women are invisible walls. Discrimination against women in different areas of life is often more subtle here than it is in countries like Pakistan. We may not be told how to dress or that it is best if we don’t go out alone. We are generally not forced to marry a person we have not chosen. We are told that we can do any job we want. But it is still a struggle, from things related to women’s salaries, to women discriminating against each other, to small acts of sexism (like a male colleague patting you on the head and saying “oh, women always like to draw attention to themselves”).
At the end of the film Rafina, her mother and her younger brother are in the process of moving to a different flat. She is not marrying Arif and she is continuing to work. She has launched a campaign with the face of Rosie in it called “Unveil your loving glow”, where Rosie is shown lifting a veil off of her face. It isn’t clear what the campaign is for, I guess I’d have to read the book for that. But her actions are seen as provocative by the city’s more conservative mullahs.
Flyers with Rosie’s face are distributed on the streets, most of them are given to women, they are on cars, posters on pillars, there is even a billboard. Rafina is invited to a TV programme where she says that the campaign is a call to “show your love”. She is proud to show her aunty’s face. I believe Rafina is strong and independent, she is a “modern woman”.
Maybe being a modern woman is not about whether you decide to have babies or not; whether you live close to your family or far from them; or whether you are a model, a hairdresser or a diplomat. Maybe it is more about daring to live life to the fullest despite the obstacles you will undoubtedly find, whether they are big injustices or small annoyances. I can think of many stories of women in history that attest to the fact that this can be done. But Rafina’s story isn’t big, it is rather one where you have to zoom in: one city, one neighbourhood, one family, one life. She learns to pursue what she wants, cares for those she loves and defies social norms in a city rife with contradictions, danger, beauty and turmoil. Rafina may be fictional but her story has reminded me that we can find inspiration and courage to live with joy in the women around us, women like her mother and her Rosie khala.