Shehzil Malik loves to take walks. After a hard and fruitful day of work, there is nothing the art director likes more than to clear her head, with a laid-back stroll in the neighbourhood.
But being a woman in Lahore, or in most parts of the world, often means that a walk is never just a walk in the park.
Each day, invariably, Malik says she is heckled and followed by unknown men on her walks.
“I have been groped more times than I can remember,” she said, with an air of nonchalance that can only explained by the fact that she was once also mugged at gunpoint with her friends in a car.
On a typical walk, Malik said she encountered catcalls, worried about the length of her dress, kept her head down for fear of catching someone’s eye, pretended not to hear lewd remarks, and walked at a brisker-than-normal pace.
“Going for a walk to my neighbourhood park felt like entering a battleground,” she said.
Unnerved, the 29-year-old began to draw for catharsis.
“The feelings of intimidation, fear and discomfort were so acute that I felt compelled to draw,” she said. Her first artwork illustrated a lone woman wearing a kurta-pyjama with a dupatta, her pupils highlighting the constant anxiety women faced when outside of their “designated spaces”.
Malik’s drawing expressing her personal discomfort at walking in public resonated with women all over the world, particularly in South Asia.
“I realised how many women felt the same way, how many struggle with a similar internal monologue and how many are made to feel uncomfortable in their own skin,” she said.
As Malik continued to develop her series #WomenInPublicSpaces – drawings of women doing ordinary things that still, strangely, felt “brave” – the response she received was overwhelming.
On Facebook, one of Malik’s works depicts a a lone woman walking with arms crossed over her chest. A single question hangs thick in the air: “Is my shirt not long enough?”
The comments below read: “Beautiful. I’m moved and heartbroken”, and “We need to stop teaching our girls to live with this frame of mind”.
Malik has been surprised at the support she has received from men, especially when they shared her feminist messages.
“There seems to be a growing realisation that we all need to stand up against patriarchal norms for real change to occur.” she said. “I think we often overlook the fact that before we divide ourselves along lines of gender, we are all people who simply want to live with dignity.”