Taking the Risk on Pakistan's Catwalks

It is a hectic schedule for 21-year-old Nagina Nayaz. By day the young Pakistani woman is a nurse at a local hospital in Peshwar. By night she pursues a controversial dream and one that puts her in considerable risk.

“I moved to Peshawar permanently because people in my area don’t like women going out and becoming a singer, a dancer, an actress or a model,” says Nayaz. “It was very difficult when I was called up for my first audition. I was all alone and did not have any of my relatives with me.”

Nayaz is rehearsing for tonight’s show where she will be singing and walking down the catwalk. The 21-year-old lives alone in Peshawar after leaving her family in Lakki Marwat, near a military stronghold in the country’s south, four years ago.

Only her mother knows where she is – her location is kept secret from her male family members, who might react violently if they knew their sister was a model.

Fashion shows are booming in Pakistan, including in Peshawar – one of the most conservative cities in the country. There is at least one fashion show in the city each month. It is a dream come true for aspiring models from the local Pashtun community, but it’s not easy for women like Nayaz to step onto the catwalk.

In 2002, when a conservative religious coalition ran the provincial legislature, images of women were banned from billboards. Those parties lost power, but models still risk being victim of a public backlash.

“I was extremely worried and afraid the first time I walked down the runway. There were so many people watching, and outside people were protesting against the show,” recalls Nayaz.

“I was afraid there would be a bomb blast outside the event. Then what would I tell my family if I got hurt? Most of my family do not know anything about my fashion career.”

Tonight there is a show at a luxurious Peshawar hotel and more than 500 people have gathered on the lawn for the show. The music and fashion show is organized by GREO, a talent school for Pashtun singers, actresses and models that Nayaz attends.

The music starts and Nayaz shimmies confidently down the runway in clothes she designed herself – a long bright red dress with a matching headscarf.

It’s a scene many local might disapprove of, including university student Abdul Jabbar, 24. He didn’t join the party but caught a glimpse of the show as he walked passed the hotel.

“These fashion shows and the women walking on the catwalk is against our Pashtun culture and our religion. No one can justify it even though the women give thousands of reasons,” Jabbar said. “I am against the militants but if they targeted events like these I would really support that because these events should be stopped by force.”

Saima Amir is the organizer of the fashion event and the owner of the GREO talent school – the only one of its kind in Peshawar run by a woman. Amir says she’s just providing a stage for Pashtun girls to showcase their modeling, acting and singing talents.

“Extremists in Pashtun society always object to the dresses that models wear in fashion shows, but I design culturally acceptable clothing for models so that they can’t object,” she says.

Away from the spotlight Nagina Nayaz says she is serious about her career.

“I dream every night that I will become one of the top models and singers in the country and that I will have many fans. I tell myself that I should not lose my hope and I pray to Allah to fulfill my dream,” she says.

Cultural restrictions, she says, are no reason to stop what she loves.

“I work and struggle hard for this. It’s my dream, I don’t sing and walk on the catwalk for the money. It’s my life goal!”

(This article was first broadcast on Asia Calling, a regional current affairs radio program produced by Indonesia’s independent radio news agency KBR68H. Website: www.asiacalling.org.)