It cannot be denied that there are still several women around the world who are struggling, suffering, and being suffocated by the pressures of a patriarchal society. Mahnoor Ahmad, a Pakistani illustrator, has made it her life’s mission to speak up about the countless women in the South Asian community who are still voiceless and unheard, raising awareness of their struggles. She acts as a spectator to a brutal reality, promoting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for Gender Equality.
Ahmad is no stranger to the everyday tasks and responsibilities burdened on women within subcontinent culture, a narrative often explored in her work.
"To be a woman in our society, it’s a challenge. We face so many challenges, as small as they are. They are so easily embedded in us as a way of life," the artist expressed in an interview with Arts Help.
Her illustrations live and breathe the massive and unrealistic expectations attached to women depicting these challenges.
Ahmad reflects the energy of her muses to decorate an entire reality with illustrations. Her works such as The Bride, The Warrior, The Goddess and The Modern Woman create a ceiling made of decorative stained glass, demanding the attention of its audience and waiting to break the norms of a patriarchal society.
In many South Asian households, practices of forced marriages, forcefully giving up education, excelling at home economics, and even unwillingly accepting mental and physical abuse at the hands of a partner have prominently still trickled down from generations. It is expected of women to give up their autonomy, their hopes and dreams to better serve society. This can be seen represented in Ahmad’s illustration, Women’s Cycle. Ahmad fears that if these issues are not highlighted or talked about then they might get embedded in society beyond repair.
Additionally, the South Asian artist also explores and brings attention to the hopes and dreams of girls and how they are equal to those of men. Every woman holds the right to explore her options, and expecting her to sacrifice her dreams is not only unfair but also cruel. She expresses these concerns in her illustration such as Growth and Hopelessness; this very vividly shows that growth is inevitable, however that does not mean that women are not caged in an atmosphere of self doubt.
Representation of nature can also be seen as prominent in Ahmad’s work. Her paintings are infiltrated with trees, flowers and birds like doves. Perhaps she envisions women as similar to nature; beautiful, fragile yet extremely important for the well-being of the world. In her descriptions, she often relates inner growth and heightened self-esteem with the blooming of flowers. Her illustration titled Growth passionately conveys the message that women have the power to conquer the world, but the initial conquest must be over their fears and inner demons. She also encourages women to allow the seed of uncertainty to tear through them and grow into beautiful fragrant flowers, freeing their ambitions and goals like pure white doves.
Ahmad will also take certain objects that are quite telling of South Asian society, and use them to personify women. As if all that women are in a subcontinent society can be reduced to a teapot. This signifies not only the house chores women are expected to take care of, but also their competence in a marriage is assessed by how well they can make tea.
“I create art for a change. As a woman freelance, I still feel we are paid less, people think of this work [art] as my hobby that I do in my free time... We are not taken seriously, people often call us feminist artists and they make it sound so bad. I think for a woman living in our society it’s so much more than just the equal rights, it’s their security, their effort being recognized, their work is taken seriously and so much more,” Ahmad expressed this in an interview with Arts Help.
The Pakistani artist also shared that she has a very supportive husband who motivates and encourages her to pursue her dreams. Perhaps the courage that Ahmad gets from her family allows her to portray the women warriors in her work as well. The dark-skinned, big black-eyed women with luscious strong black hair are here to stay, they should not be undermined. The beauty of her illustrations is that she celebrates South Asian women for who they are. Again, they are seen adorned in a cultural attire of shalwar kameez, wearing chunky ethnic jewellery and staring at the audience with wide brown eyes. Ahmad does not feel the need to draw fair-skinned, blue-eyed girls who are dressed in western attire. She wants women to be celebrated for how they are seen in the subcontinent.