Karachi-based artist Samya Arif’s Women of My Land work is an album of moving music about growing up as a girl in Pakistan, accompanied by beautiful illustrations that instantly draw you into Arif’s world.
While I love the entire project, the Fast Girls artwork is the one that had a powerful connection with me. It feels like a close friend with whom I share a secret language.
I live in India, and Samya in Pakistan - two countries ruthlessly separated by the partition in 1947, and yet so similar with their problematic attitudes towards women. Earning the title of a “fast girl” is pretty common in both countries, and it has nothing to do with athletic prowess. Just be an independent, modern, strong-headed woman who is capable of making her own decisions. Try to break away from the shackles of deep-rooted patriarchy, and there you go, you are a “fast girl” now, and a big nuisance to society. Congratulations!
'Fast girls, fast girls. They are gonna go far.'
In her artwork, Arif takes this ubiquitous label used for women (in this part of the world) and turns it on its head by celebrating - not demeaning - the powerful, rebellious women who choose to live life on their own terms.
A woman in red stares directly at her challengers while smoking a cigar (something that men can do freely here, but that women would be shamed for). In the background, two women dance openly with each other, while a lit matchstick blazes with a bright flame. It’s all so provocative. It’s all so empowering.
‘I used to give a shit about what people said. Now I let it go over my head.’
In her official introduction to the work, Arif perfectly articulates, “In my experience, it’s so easy for society to label a woman. You're good and sharif (noble/respectable) if you follow a particular set of rules and you're bad and 'fast' if you decide to follow your own tune and not care about ‘log kya kahenge’ (‘what will people say!’)".
In one of our conversations, Arif told me that the artwork was a personal response to her being labelled a “fast girl” by her family, schoolmates, and by society for just being open-minded, a go-getter, and sometimes even for smoking - something that men can do easily without worrying about any labels. “I wanted to show myself owning up to the term along with my identity and sexuality,” she said. It’s no surprise that the sketch of the woman in red is inspired by a photo of herself smoking a cigar at a house party.
‘When I was young, I was very slow. But then I grew up to be a Fast Girl.’
The artwork inspires me at so many levels, but most importantly, it feels like a life strategy: take a label that society throws at you, own it, and then turn it onto its head into something positive.