Misha Japanwala

On Casting the Female Form: Gender & Expression in Pakistan

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Misha Japanwala is a Pakistani artist and designer who uses body casting as palimpsests to study, critique and comment on the violence and judgement inflicted upon womxn and their bodies. Born and raised in Pakistan, Misha moved to NYC to attend fashion school at Parsons School of Design. The intricacies of her journey as a privileged Pakistani, a woman of color, and an immigrant, along with Misha's understanding of and relationship to her own body, are deeply woven into the fabric of her work. Misha’s debut collection, Azaadi, was an homage to the strength and agency of Pakistani women in the face of domestic violence, moral policing and taboos surrounding female sexuality. These themes continue to inform her practice as she works to amplify the voices of the womxn around her.

"What do women's bodies mean to women themselves and to other people? I think that that's a question that I am constantly thinking about as I create my own work."

~ Misha

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Transcription

Misha: What do women's bodies mean to women themselves and to other people? I think that that's a question that I am constantly thinking about as I create my own work.

 

Lianne: I'm Lianne. Welcome to Strippers and Sages. Today I'm speaking with Misha Japanwala, a Pakistani artist and designer who creates body casts of the female nude to critique and raise awareness about violence against women, and the repression of female sexuality in Pakistan and around the world. Having grown up in Karachi, Misha moved to New York City to attend fashion school at Parsons School of Design and launched her career. Her relationship to her own body and her complex identity as a privileged Pakistani, a woman of color and an immigrant are deeply woven into the fabric of her work. Misha's debut collection was an homage to the strength and agency of Pakistani woman in the face of domestic violence, moral policing, and taboos around female sexuality. This was a really powerful conversation. I mean, if you think about what's happening in Pakistan right now, honor killings are on the rise. And there was the recent gang rape of a woman along the highway - her car broke down - and the police response to that was, "well, she shouldn't have been out alone at night, she should know better, she should have prepared the full tank of gas." And I mean, the victim blaming is astounding, and obviously something that we see here in the States as well. And so just considering that cultural background, the fact that Misha is making this really gorgeous art of her own naked body and sharing it on the internet- it's quite radical. So we talked about what that means and how her work is being received, as well as how it intersects with women's rights issues around the world. If you're enjoying these conversations, please go ahead and drop a big fat five in the ratings it really helps us get discovered. While you're at it, why not share your favorite episode with a friend. I mean, if you're listening right now, we consider you our core audience, our inner circle, because we're still a new podcast. So please help us build our platform. We really want these conversations to reach people, because we think that they're important and we want to bring about a global paradigm shift. So help us spread the word. And if you like talking about sex as much as I do, we are starting a new sub-series called Street Talk - deeply intimate conversations with real people. As opposed to all these robots we've been featuring. Real people, meaning just non experts, anybody who wants to share and is willing to talk nitty gritty details about their sex lives. Whether you have a really unique story to share, something you're working through, we welcome all all narratives - those that are anxiety filled and those that are just filled with ecstasy. we want to unpack it all. So please reach out to us, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or send us a note via our website, or email me directly lianne@strippersandsages.com I love receiving emails from strangers. It really turns me on. And lastly, a quick shout out to Oba moon - a supplement and multivitamin for womb-bodied folks that helps regulate the cycle and gives you all of the minerals your body needs to stay happy and healthy. I can completely vouch for the integrity of its creators. And if you use the discount code strippersandsages, you will receive just that a discount. All right, please enjoy this episode. And we hope to hear from you.

 

Misha, thank you so much for being here today. Where are you calling in from?

 

Misha: Hi, it's so great to be here. Thank you so much for having me on. I am calling from my apartment in Jersey City.

 

Lianne: Ah, Jersey City. My parents live there for a hot moment. That's like the new Brooklyn, right?

Misha: Yeah, it is. No one likes to say it though. Because everyone still hates Jersey. But it pretty much is the new Brooklyn.

 

Lianne: Well, that's why, like I have to make it sound really fashionable and- 

 

Misha: Exactly, yeah, exactly. Yeah. 

 

Lianne: Well, um, I would love to start- I just want to have you speak a little bit about your work in a general sense. You create these hauntingly beautiful casts of the naked female body - you described them as sculptural garments. So if you could talk about your work and your process, particularly in terms of its aesthetics, at first, just to help our listeners hold an image of what we're talking about in their imagination throughout the rest of this conversation.

 

Misha: Of course. I feel like my work kind of takes a bunch of different forms, but the primary visual form that it has taken, and that I hope it will continue to take as I move forward in my artistic practice, is through body casting. And the way I do that is I create molds of mostly my own body, and cast into them with different materials such as liquid plastic and resin to create an exact replica of whatever body part I am choosing to mold or represent and put out into the world. I try to have it look almost stone-like, just because I think the process of body casting is so interesting where it really gets every single detail down to the exact or and crease and wrinkle of the body. And I think that creating an exact replica of the way your body looks on a certain day, you know, at a certain time or something, that is really interesting to explore. Both in what the visual aspect of that is like - to see your body as a replica outside of just looking at it as your skin in the mirror, you know? To see it as another object. And also in the meaning of creating your body into an object and what that means for you.

 

Lianne: So, you started this as a senior thesis, right, but was called Azadi?

 

Misha: Azadi. Yes.

 

Lianne: So, Azadi means freedom, right? And I would love for you to speak about freedom as it relates to your work. And then also a little bit about how you stumbled into this as a particular form of expression. 

 

Misha: Of course. So, I think it was interesting that you say stumbled, because it really does feel like I quite literally stumbled into body casting as a way for me to talk about my thoughts and feelings and, you know, a way for me to move forward in my artistic practice. So Azadi, which was my senior thesis collection at Parsons School of Design, was my version of my thesis fashion collection, which all fashion seniors are supposed to make in their last year of school. And for me, at that time, you know, after having gone through four years of fashion school, this thesis collection was my first large body of work. And it was extremely overwhelming, because it was really the first time that I had the complete freedom to create a significant body of work that was, in so many ways, going to save who I was, and what was important to me. And it was also extremely personal, because I was grappling with my identity as a Pakistani woman and wanting to represent that physically, visually, in my collection. I'm also wanting to talk about other Pakistani women and womanhood in Pakistan, and just the back and forth that I had, mentally with wanting to talk about all of these really important things, and wanting to represent myself as truly as good in a fashion collection. So that was a very interesting and very emotional year for me. 

 

Lianne: Mm hmm. And your project, at some point, you branched out and you started casting Pakistani women as well, right?  You weren't your own subject. So can you speak about who those women were, how you came to extend your practice to involve them as subjects and what you were trying to communicate or engage with, in terms of questions, with that work?

 

Misha: Of course. So, you know, it was a little more than halfway through the process of working on my collection that I realized the importance of having conversations with other Pakistani woman who came from a very different background than I. I remember initially, when I started out, I thought that it would be this like, huge all-encapsulating collection about all Pakistani women and it was only until I started, you know, getting dirty in the research, and actually thinking about what this collection meant to me, that I realized how problematic that was. Right? One of my ways of kind of moving around and better educating myself as a woman and artist and someone making a collection like this was to firsthand personally listen to the experiences of these women and give them the space and the platform to talk instead of feeling like I could talk for them. You know.

 

Lianne: And who is the 'them'? Who were the women?

Misha: Right? So these are a bunch of different women that I spoke to. A lot of them were, you know, staff that had worked in our homes or in my parents businesses and stuff like that, and then speaking to, you know, through them speaking to the other women in their communities. So they are women from, you know, lesser privileged backgrounds. I did speak to a lot of Hindu women who are not just marginalized from an economic perspective, but also from a religious perspective. You know, Hindus are a small minority in Pakistan. And there's a lot to say about how badly they are treated and what they're thought of just because of Pakistan-India relations, and how that plays into their identity as Hindus. So it was very interesting to talk to them not just about what it's been like for them as women moving through life in Karachi, but their experiences of domestic violence, and just all of these themes, because, you know, I think, to be having those conversations, and to also ask them for their hands in the process of casting them and including them in my collection, it was something that I guess no one, well, obviously no one had ever asked to pour silicone onto their hands and make a mold of them for, you know, a pieces collection. But also just I think the act of sitting down with them and asking them about their experiences, and asking them to talk about, you know, domestic abuse and sexual violence, those are things that I don't think anyone had ever sat down to talk to them about, or ask them about. So it was an extremely eye opening conversation, I think on both ends And I think something that has really continued to shape my view on feminism and Pakistan, and how best to, you know, be someone who can amplify those voices.

 

Lianne: Yeah. So class enters into the conversation for you- you started off by speaking about your privilege, and I'm curious, are the issues that you are seeking to explore, like domestic violence... how did those either in a statistical sense, or.. I'm not asking you to, quote numbers, but how did those cases differ across classes? I guess is what my question is. So it's something that you were exploring, like, why did you feel that, oh, if I'm only interviewing a certain class, or an upper class of Pakistani women, that I'm not getting the full picture? And in fact, what are the conditions? Like give us a sense of the lay of the land across different classes and how domestic violence spans? Because of course, we know that violence can happen at any stage and nobody is immune. But why was that where you found yourself focusing your inquiry?

 

Misha: Right, so to answer your question about what domestic violence looks like, you know, through the different class divisions in a place like Pakistan... um, well, one, I want to say in terms of numbers and things like that, I think it's very difficult, whatever the class or you know, socio-economic background, to be able to quote actual numbers, because in a place like Pakistan, there really isn't very accurate recording of those kinds of statistics at all, you know, especially when it comes to women's rights issues and issues of violence. But I think things like that, really, there's a whole spectrum of the kinds of violence I think, everywhere, but also, especially in a place like Pakistan that women face. In the most privileged, most liberal circles of Pakistani society, they can take the form of, you know, people policing other women's actions and decisions, and, you know, the kind of clothing that they wear and stuff like that. And I think the most extreme kinds of violence we see in Pakistan is something like honor killings, where family members take it upon themselves to, you know, murder and kill women in the name of honor, because they feel like she has dishonored the family in some way for, you know, any sort of decision that she made. I mean, in newspaper articles, there have been so many different things that kind of pinpoint the reason for the honor killing- it can be as simple as you know, a woman wanting to marry the man of her choice. Um, and as we see in one of the most popular honor killing cases in Pakistan with Qandeel Baloch, it was about, you know, her presence on social media and how she was portraying herself to, you know, a huge number of people.

 

Lianne: Right, she was a model and an actress, a social media celebrity, and strangled to death by her brother in the middle of the night for bringing disrepute upon the family.

 

Misha: Exactly.

 

Lianne: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about her because I know that she was an influence for some of your work. And so I'm curious how, in what ways the her story in particular influenced you? I can see themes in terms of model, actress, like already presentability and already injecting the female form into the fabric of society in a more social way. And just what insight can you give us into the kind of patriarchal and conservative conditioning that men and brothers and fathers are receiving there that are behind these honor killings?

 

Misha: Totally, I mean, you know, with Qandeel Baloch, which was a very interesting case, she had this she was this, you know, larger than life personality that had really risen to fame, in large part due to her social media presence. And, Sanam Meher is a writer and journalist who has written an incredible book chronicling the life of Qandeel Baloch called The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch, which I would recommend for everyone to read. In that she, you know, not just in the book, but I think also generally, what is so compelling about Qandeel Baloch is that, you know, she was this victim of this gruesome, awful honor killing, and after that, you know, she's kind of taken on this... she's kind of become like, a feminist icon in Pakistan. And it's really interesting to think about how when she was alive, everyone would make fun of her and laugh at her videos, and, you know, totally pick apart her identity and what she was saying and how she was acting on camera, you know? So it's interesting to think about how she is put on this pedestal and idolized as this icon after her death, and what that means as a society, and as Pakistani people, in terms of how we see people, and how we see women specifically. In terms of her death, and what drove her brother, you know, to performing the act of actually killing his own sister. I think that in Pakistan, the kind of culture that has continued to foster is I think, the idea that women's bodies are not their own. You know, and I think that that is a sentiment that is felt, through all backgrounds in varying degrees, and different communities and different parts of the country. And I think that's a question that I am constantly thinking about, as I create my own work, you know, which is what does what do women's bodies mean, to women themselves and to other people? Because in a place like Pakistan, women's bodies are not welcome in public spaces. And, you know, families and others think that they have the right to make decisions about women's bodies and things like that. So, I don't know, there's just, I guess, so much that can be dissected about how we feel, and how we think, and the kind of culture that surrounds us - physically and mentally about what our bodies mean.

 

Lianne: So the women who you interviewed, given what you're, what you're sharing, and what you shared earlier about how this was the first time that they've even been asked- and, of course, there's a whole slew of ramifications, I would think for just sharing their stories and putting themselves in the public eye to the extent especially-  were you doing hands or nudes of those women?

 

Misha: I was doing just hands 

 

Lianne: Just the hands.

 

Misha: Yeah. 

 

Lianne: Okay, so how did they respond to your inquiry and words? Was there concern or shame about having their voices or their stories told? And did those stories get told beyond a physical symbolic representation? Or did they live with you? In terms of when when this work is displayed, do you share the actual narratives of these women? Or is what we are left with as an audience simply the physical artifact of their hands and what they represent?

 

Misha: I mean, I think mostly it's been just the physical representation of their identities and who they are. And just for me, personally, I think that the representation of these woman's words, I think, was, to me best represented through the moldmaking and allowing the boers and shapes, and wrinkles of their skin and on their bodies to speak for their experiences. And it is those things with which they experience the world. And there's something about that idea that is really powerful to me. Um, but I did have conversations with them, which I went in and wrote essays about in a different part of my thesis that was shared at the time, but that I haven't, you know, publicly shared since then. They're kind of still sitting with me. And I think more than anything, those conversations were an exploration for me, and better understanding my identity as a Pakistani woman and the kinds of varied experiences Pakistani women have. Um, I do think at some point that it would be amazing and beautiful to share those conversations.

 

Lianne: Well, I agree with you that the hands... I mean, it's a fascinating medium to capture a life, right? You wrote, while we're talking about hands, I am remembering that you spoke on Instagram about seeing the work of Italian artists, Lorenzo Quinn titled 'Support' in which he has these huge... are they plaster? I don't know what they're made out of. But these sculptural hands coming in now, yeah, climbing up a building and this commentary on climate change. And I love what you wrote about how our hands both capture the human capacity for creation and for destruction. Right, that it's with these hands that built this magnificent city of Venice, and these same hands that will ultimately contribute towards its demise as climate change causes the canals to rise. So in thinking about the symbolism of hands, why are hands the focus for you? I understand why doing full body cast of those women maybe wasn't available, but instead of faces, or in other other body parts, perhaps.

 

Misha: Right. So I mean, of course, I was limited by not being able to cast them nude, and to cast those particular parts of the body through which I was casting myself, but for hands specifically, I think, you know, as I said, in that caption, about being able to create and destroy at the same time, I think there's something about hands as the part of our body through which we really live and see the world. And I don't know what the word is, but like... I guess, also receive the world. And it's through the hands with which we do that. And I think especially when talking to those women about things like domestic violence, and just their lived experiences, I kept in my mind, going back to the imagery of their hands and their hands, doing all of these different things and their hands, helping them live, right, and how their hands experienced all of these different things, you know? And also, for these women, these were women that were working and earning money and earning a living to help support their families, and how are they doing that? In large part with their hands. So it was interesting to think about how their hands were experiencing the violence that they had faced in their homes and, you know, through their husbands or with their families, and at the same time, using their hands as their liberation to be financially independent and to support their children and their families. So there was so much about that. And imagining them that felt like hands really was the best way for me to capture as much of who they were and what their experiences were just in a body part.

 

Lianne: Absolutely. And it has this, this anonymity at the same time as having tremendous specificity. And especially since the form that you're working with, as you say, it's detailed enough to show even just the pores of the skin. And so how intimate and personal but yet also has this layer of facelessness, which I think has its own representation. So going back to your own exploration of your own body and doing the cast, since most of your work has been focused on your own form, was the... you know the female body has a long history of various associations in art and traditionally has been represented through a male gaze and is either distorted or represents, you know, the standard beauty ideals of the time. What about your own representation? How are you seeking to engage with that history? And where does sexuality come into it? Because there's this interesting thing where in some ways, I think your work ostensibly might de-eroticize the form, right? That you're just presenting it there as this static object, you're showing it in it's absolute nakedness. And so showing all of its pores, and then at the same time, can you ever completely de-eroticize the body? Do we even want to? What was your intention in terms of navigating the implications of sensuality, in the work itself?

 

Misha: Totally. Um, I mean, you know, the idea of desexualization is often brought up when I'm discussing my work with other people and in the reception of my work. And I think that's very interesting to think about, because women's bodies lie in the area of hyper-sexual, right? And that's how their bodies are projected in the media and how they are spoken about. And what we are taught is the nature of women's bodies, right? Um, and I think the idea of de-eroticizing and de-sexualizing especially within the context of my work isn't to desensitize. But I kind of see it as bringing women's bodies back into the place of neutrality where all bodies should be.

 

Lianne: Hmm. 

Misha: Because right now, they're on the far end of the spectrum. And I think that through women speaking about their bodies, and creating art, and doing what they think is the best way to do that for themselves, is to kind of, you know, shift that little thing more towards the other side, while not taking it all the way into the desensitized area, which is, of course, very dangerous, right? Um,

 

Lianne: No, that's very interesting, um, in terms of the neutrality and being right, that it doesn't need to be. It just lends to our ever increasingly polarized way of thinking, right? You're either a sexual object, or you're not, or actually, you're a multifaceted being that covers a whole range of a spectrum.

 

Misha: Exactly. And sorry, but you know, just through this team that we're discussing, at the moment, I feel compelled to bring out to bring up, um, cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion's recent single, right, and just the immense backlash that that faced and the reasons for why people were getting so angry about these two women being explicit about their sexuality and making a piece of art in the form of a song about it. Right. So I, and a lot of the argument that some people presented was that they were, you know, just the way men think about women's bodies and sexualize them that they were contributing to that and doing the same thing, but I think that, that idea, I feel like just doesn't Well, one, it doesn't make sense to me, and I'm angry about it, but also just, you know, in trying to rationalize that train of thought and, you know, trying to form a concrete rebuttal to that, I think, for me, is there's a huge difference between the male gaze speaking about and representing women's bodies in a certain way, as opposed to women themselves, reclaiming that and speaking about it for themselves, you know, absolutely.

 

Lianne: Yeah, the double standard with that particular backlash is astounding, and I'm thinking about this the theme of freedom that we started with and what it means to be in possession of your body and your story and your narrative. And I think that's as you as you articulated in introducing that video, which maybe we'll link to so that people can check it out. I think you do a good job of giving a sense of what it what we're talking about here. It's part of it right? And I think often when there's there's the feeling to that you can't ever get it right right like you. If you are taking if you are reclaiming and stepping into your sexuality and in doing so, somehow perpetuating tropes that have been created that have been either misogynistic or just our STEM to some sort of patriarchal construct such as, you know, as you might identify within the male rap scene historically, that then you are not reclaiming and reinterpreting and becoming self possessed, but rather you are perpetuating the very patriarchy that you as a woman should be seeking to redefine. But the alternative there is like what what timidity? Like what is the

 

Misha: Exactly and, you know, I mean, here we are talking about explicitly talking about what these two women were speaking about in their song and the backlash to that, and the idea of ownership of one's body as a woman, you know, and it does make me think about being in a place like Pakistan, where a woman is doing something as simple as you know, riding a bicycle or walking down the street, which is seen as unusual and even sometimes inappropriate, you know, which is the same kind of question that we're asking ourselves with, you know, Cardi B, and Megan Thee Stallion in their song as we are in the situation of this woman riding a bike in Pakistan, which is how much freedom do women really have to exist and exercise control over their bodies? Right? Um, so yeah, it's just interesting to see how that just very question is asked in so many different ways and situations within different communities and in different parts of the world? 

 

Lianne: Absolutely. There's, there's that interest, this interesting duality that I'm thinking about in your work because it, it in some ways, absolutely objectifies in the sense that you are literally making an object of and it captures something so vulnerable and changeable as the human body in this physically rigid form, and presents it and so I think that you're you're walking interesting lines there, because on the one hand, you're you're fertilizing the form, you're giving it a solidity and a strength and a timelessness that the body itself lacks and its fragility, and at the same time, you are showing it in its complete authenticity, by virtue of the medium that you're using, again, with how detailed the representations are. That's really, really interesting. So going back, so I'd love to hear about your personal upbringing in Pakistan, and getting a little bit into themes of sexuality, how, you know, how you first learned about sex, how, if and how you did how that was compared to the rest of the culture, if there is such a thing as a norm in terms of how sex is spoken about, either within different families, or homes or, or classes, and, and then from there, bring it to how casting your own form, maybe helped you evolve or evolve your relationship to your own sex and your own body.

Misha: Right. So I didn't grow up in what I would say, is a very liberal Pakistani family, you know, um, and that is, of course, that was, of course, very privileged too. So I went to a pretty elite private school, and that's how I got my education. Um, you know, where all of my classes were taught in English, and kids aspire to go to Ivy League colleges and universities in the United States, you know, and that is a very, very small pocket of the Pakistani population. Um, so that was kind of my upbringing. And it's interesting to think about the family that I grew up in, in my experience as a Pakistani girl and woman growing up in Pakistan in relation to how that formed ideas about my body, right? Um, and how, in the end, somehow, I ended up here, tossing my naked body and putting it out there for everyone to see right. Um, but when we think about how we are thought about women's bodies, and particularly how we are thought about sex and Pakistan, it's really interesting and so many times I am looking at my work and I see teams, and I see snippets of the that I'm bringing presented in my work that I maybe didn't intentionally, you know, try to represent, but that I'm seeing kind of, like spill out in different ways in the work I create.

 

Lianne: What would be an example of that?

 

Misha: I don't, I mean, I think a big example of that is like, well, with my thesis collection and passing my body, which is my chosen, you know, visual medium now, um, of how I present womanhood and talking about my experiences and things like that, I feel like, it wasn't until later that I sat down and considered, you know, the experiences that I had growing up, and how that may have led me to this point of just so much frustration that I felt compelled to, you know, step into that area of casting my naked body and putting it in my collection. Right. So, I mean, just in a more general sense, sex education in Pakistan is basically non existent. And for me to have gone to one of the most elite, privileged, you know, elite, private schools in the country, you know, that is mostly filled with very privileged and very liberal children and students and teachers and administration, you know, we should be thinking about how the fact that there was no sexual education in a, what is considered a very liberal institution in Pakistan, and what that means for all of the other, you know, institutions, in Pakistan, in schools and public schools and things like that, if sex ed wasn't even, you know, on the table, and the word sex wasn't so much as whispered in the school that I went to, I feel like it's very telling about how it's perceived, and, you know, not taught in other aspects and other and other kinds of schools as well, you know, I mean, and I feel like that that is a very big cultural issue in terms of the lack of sex education in Pakistan, and how that is contributing to the high numbers and cases of violence against women in this country, right. Like, through sex education, you learn about your bodies, and you also learn about things like consent, and, you know, what it means to be in a sexual sexually intimate situation and relationship and the fact that we are not, not only are we not being taught about those things, but the fact that even discussing things like that are so taboo, I think, is a huge, huge issue. And safeguarding, you know, women, and resulting in the kinds of dangerous situations that so many thoughts on you women find themselves in? 

 

Lianne: You know, I can't say that our sex ed in the states is really even much better, which is what is astounding and problematic across the globe. Where did your, where did your education come from then? And how do you think most people like in the absence of, of education, what are the sorts because I've, I've looked a lot at how men men and women, young ages get indoctrinated into certain ideas about sex very early in our culture through secrecy and shaming and porn and whatever other factors, frat boy culture, shaping last perspective, but, um, you know, is there a frat boy culture there? Like, what are what are some of the influences that have shaped that are shaping young people?

 

Misha: I mean, I think given the power of Western media, and especially in, you know, the part of society that I grew up in Western media is pretty much all we consumed. Growing up, you know, so it's Western, like films and TV shows and books, and you know, and now there's social media too, which is what we are receiving. And that is what is forming our ideas of, you know, all kinds of things including sex. Um, and for me, you know, despite growing up in a liberal family, I not once spoke to my parents, um, or anyone in my family really about sex or anything like that, and it was mostly left up to, you know, the internet and my curiosity through which I even explore things like that, or conversations that I had with my friends, you know, just as trying to navigate and figure this out, because we had no formal education on the matter, and none of us had ever. Or we're going to bring up that topic of conversation with our parents. So there was no adult that we could comfortably have that conversation with, because we were taught that you're not supposed to speak about things like that, you know, that it's taboo to even bring up those kinds of topics and those kinds of themes, which was interesting, because, you know, as teenagers growing up, you're interested in beginning to explore your sexuality and things like that, um, and you have no outlet or no means to really discuss those things in a safe, or in an environment where you feel safe bringing it up, right, and you're just kind of like, left your own devices. So I mean, you know, in my teens, I felt like I needed to watch foreign to kind of, you know, introduce myself to the idea of sex and things like that. And, you know, how that kind of trickled into my own personal life and dating life and stuff, I think, is interesting. How did it. Um, I mean, I think just the, the culture of growing up in Pakistan was very weird, because, you know, here we were as tweens and teenagers, and you know, starting to explore, you know, attraction to other people and things like that, and just navigating things like that. And, you know, it was weird, because there were times that I think this is like eighth grade honors eighth grade, up until, like, 10th or 11th grade, like, I was called into the principal's office, because a teacher got me writing, like a love note to a boy, you know, and my parents were called in because it was a huge issue. And then another time, I was called into the principal's office, because a teacher saw me hugging a male friend, you know, and it's things that were as simple as that, that you were so you know, I my parents were pretty strict and growing up. So for them to be called into the principal's office, because of my actions was a huge deal in our family. Right? So it's just things like that, when something as innocent as you know, hugging a meal friend is so so bad. I mean, forget about even trying to talk to your mom about sex or wanting to be intimate with your boyfriend or anything.

 

Lianne: The principal must be like, following your social media now, like, of course, that's what that girl got up, got up to in her career. I always knew she'd be casting her naked body and putting it on the internet.

 

Misha: Oh, my God, I wish I could be put in a room with her. Today, I really do. It's so extreme that even our biology in our biology textbooks, you know, the chapters on reproduction are glued together so that you don't see them. 

 

Lianne: Wow. 

Misha: Yes. And that is, again, I feel like I have to emphasize the fact that this is in the kind of school that uses the British system of education and stuff. And for us to be for us to be gluing our pages on reproduction together so that we don't go through them. I think it's like, it was just so mind boggling to think about how if this is what seemingly the most liberal circles of Pakistani society do, and how they view sex and sexuality, what that means for everyone else in the country.

 

Lianne: There's a phrase that in English translates to what will people think, write that idiom? which I'd love to hear in Urdu? But what does that phrase about and how does that create? Like what what will people think? How is that an idiom that is disseminated in society to control people through a fear of public opinion.

 

Misha: Right. So the phrase what will people say is "log kehte hain ge" - it is something that is really interesting because it kind of dictates so much and is used as a weapon against women wanting to live life on their own terms and wanting to make decisions for how they choose to live their life. And I think it's something that affects South Asian women, that affects every South Asian woman to a certain degree, because I feel like, I feel like our societies are kind of structured around that for us. And it's a tool, it's just, you know, something as simple as that phrase is used as a tool to, you know, police all kinds of decisions that women make, you know, and make them feel like they have to hide so much of who they are, um, I have tried so hard to be as open as I can, in my work, you know, and the kind of work that I do is a lot in, you know, putting my naked body out there. Um, and that phrase, was kind of in the back of my mind a lot during the process of creating this collection, because I was extremely concerned about what my parents would think and how they would explain this kind of work to our family and their friends and stuff of which, you know, they are very concerned, as a lot of Pakistani people are about, you know, what others have to say about their lives and their children and everything related to it.

 

Lianne: What kind of reception has your work gotten, because I know that you share, you share it on Instagram, which is a platform that is accessible to anyone, so though you're across, across an ocean, right, it is, you're not, um, you're not immune to the kind of backlash that you might be receiving there. And praise I imagine as well.

 

Misha: I mean, it's been really interesting for me, especially the act of sharing my work through a social media platform, and through Instagram, and the kind of reach a platform like that has, and, you know, having people see my work, see and receive my work. Um, you know, I have looked at Instagram analytics. And it's interesting that, you know, the last time I checked, it was about 70% women that were followers of mine, and a majority of them from Pakistan. Um, so, that is interesting to me. Because, I mean, for the most part, I think my work has been received well, um, I have tried really hard to, in the last couple of years, just build a community of women of artists, um, of Pakistani women, artists who inspire me and inform my work and with whom I feel extremely comfortable sharing mine, right. But at the same time, because you are putting your work on a platform as public as Instagram, or Facebook, which I don't really use that much anymore. But there has been a lot of backlash from people, you know, people have not been okay with the kind of work that I put out. And I understand that because I'm a Pakistani woman, and a lot of people that find their way to my work are from Pakistan, and have a lot to say about my use of my body. And talking about women's bodies as their own. Um, I've gotten so many, so many comments that I'm trying to kind of...

 

Lianne:  love to hear what you're thinking. Because I don't think that this comment that I'm going to share is from necessarily a Pakistani woman, probably not. But one that I saw this morning on your feed was somebody commenting on a cast of the face, and somebody saying, I think that the lips need to be plumper, or more voluptuous or juicy or something. Like, what? Who is this? Dude? You're like so missing the point, you're, they're trying to make this perfect mold and capture the authenticity of the form. And they're like, I think you got to plump up those lips,

 

Misha: It's missing the point of what I'm trying to say. But I think it's also highlighting the point of what I'm trying to say, right? Of people feeling like they have ownership and have the space to voice their opinions about how my lips should be looking. Which is just one small variation of how people feel about women's bodies in terms of how they should look and the kind of clothes that should be put on them and all kinds of things like that. I mean, I will say that it's been interesting because while I am making cost of my naked body, the way I present them is as wearable sculptures right as sculptural So it's fully exposing the body while at the same time, by me wearing a facet of my own body, I am covering my body, you know what I mean? It's kind of like a, it's an extra shell that I'm putting on on top of it. So I think the paradox of exposing my body while actually covering up those parts, by putting a class over it, I think is interesting. But as I talk about this, I better remember some of the comments that have graced my Instagram. I'm in this so much, I mean, you know, recently, not my recent, I mean, a few months ago, quarantine has totally, completely warped my perception of time. But, um, it was, I think, a photo of me wearing jeans and one of my costs on top, um, that essentially showed as much skin as wearing jeans and a T shirt would, right, but the fact that it was a cost and showed, you know, my breasts was extremely problematic to a lot of people. And that particular photograph was reposted by this, like social platform that, you know, posts a lot about Pakistani women and women's rights and things like that. And just the comments on there were, I mean, the one word that was used most widely by I mean, hundreds of people was shameless. Um, and it was interesting that, you know, men and women thought that, you know, and I think that that's what people get wrong many times is, you know, they think that it's a man problem, and like, the way men are perceiving women's bodies is what's wrong, but I think it's important to think about how that perception of women's bodies isn't singular to just men, right? Women see women's bodies in that way too many times. I'm so that's interesting. But also, you know, when we talk about reception of my work, many I do a lot of line drawings that are just silhouettes. And people have had a huge problem with that as well, which is just, I mean, it's a line on a paper. But you know, and I think the problem that a lot of people have had with that is the incorporation of the words into those silhouettes, um, because people think that I am equating nudity with freedom and nudity with bravery or other, you know, other words that I have chosen to use to reflect on women's experiences. 

 

Lianne: Which you are, rightfully. I do, I do love what you wrote, at some point about expanding  the language that you were using, because you realized that it was all very empowering and positive. And that actually, there was a need to represent also vulnerability, and fear, and validate those experiences and emotions just as much and put them out there, which I really appreciated. I did want to ask you about fashion and this idea of fashion, and you're not calling these sculptures, you're calling them sculptural garments that people are meant to wear. And so what is it about fashion that draws you in, and that you, you're not doing this as a side project, I'm going to be a fashion designer, and I'm going to make these new to you some of this cast, my particular favorite, the nipple earrings, you've made into wearable jewelry and whatnot. So what is your intention? And what are the layers that you're thinking about in terms of having people were not just their own forms, but other people's? And what does the fashion industry, you know, what, what draws you into the fashion industry as the locus of where you want to do your activism and your self expression?

 

Misha: Right. So, I mean, it's been interesting, because I decided very early on in my life that I was going to be a fashion designer. And once I made that decision, I never questioned any other career path or anything else. I was like, seven years old, like, I want to be a fashion designer, and then everything from that point forward was, okay, cool. How are you gonna make this happen? And how are you gonna get there? You know, so, considering that that was how I moved through most of my life, you know, this idea that I was going to be this fashion designer, be in the fashion industry, work in fashion. For most of it, it was, you know, me creating garments out of cloth and, you know, being a fashion designer in the most traditional sense. I did say earlier that body casting is something that I really stumbled into once I had that with the kind of things that I felt like were important to me and that I wanted to talk about in this particular collection that I was making. And body casting was, seemed like the best way for me to communicate that. So and you know, body casting has only been my medium for the past, I guess I would say about three years. Because it was kind of around this time, three years ago, that I actually started developing and thinking about this kind of stuff. So, I mean, I do think that the act of you know, wearing wearing a cast of a body and even if it's something as simple as you know, wearing, like, wearing nipples on your ears or something like that, it's kind of, to me, it feels like a reclamation of the body, you know, and it kind of feels like you're wearing a medal of honor. It does do me feel like that, you know what I mean? It's kind of like, I feel like our bodies are used kind of as weapons and are whispered about and said, okay, you need to cover this, or this is not okay, to, you know, be here or whatever. And you see that in, you know, how difficult it is for women to share their bodies on Instagram. And we think about, you know, the free the nipple, and all of that on Instagram, right. And it's like, those women's bodies, I think are considered these things that need to be kept super private and super secret. And for me, the act of creating fashion out of it and putting it on the body and wearing it is kind of my act of resistance to that idea.

Lianne: And you write that you want to have your own brand. And that that brand, you want to create social change, not just through visual dialogue, but also a more tangible financial way. So whether that entails further body casting, or whatever is in your magnificent imagination, in terms of what you're wanting to create, what is it about adornment, and again, like fashion is the industry being the place where you want to be engaging with these themes.

 

Misha: Right, that's interesting, I guess, like, up until, you know, going to fashion school and creating this thesis collection and all of that I never questioned whether fashion was the subdivision of art that I wanted to move forward with. And I kind of just find myself now, not not, not fully in fashion, not fully and fine art, but kind of on the border between those two, and I do love being in this little space that I've carved out for myself. You are free to hang the cast of this body on the wall in your living room, if you want, which is  where I have a couple of my pieces, or you know, to be put on the body, um, to wear out into the world in the form of accessories or whatever. I mean, I wouldn't say that my body casts are like grocery store friendly, you know, limited mobility in terms of that. but anyway, in terms of having my own fashion brand, I mean, you know, fashion is still something that I love very much, and the idea of clothing and fashion, and women putting themselves in garments that make them feel a certain type of way. And that is really an extension of themselves is, I think, an interesting idea, and especially considering body casting, and how it is the most, and how it is an extension of yourself in the most literal way. You know, I'm, as I'm choosing to move forward kind of in the fashion sphere, but the idea of kind of not just creating change, through visual dialogue and through my casts, but I have always felt very important to be able to give back to communities of women, especially in Pakistan, that I feel like have informed so much about my own perception of womanhood and myself as a woman. And to me just being able to start conversations and question societal taboos and, you know, problems within Pakistani culture doesn't feel enough, you know, like, I want to be able to have some sort of tangible impact. And that would be through setting up this brand, or this company in being able to consistently you know, have a percentage of every Purchase, go to Words, a women's shelter in Karachi or to support something like that. Sorry, I'm really going off on a tangent here. But I do think so much about fashion. You know, and I think a lot about Pakistani fashion and the Pakistani fashion industry that is built on cheap labor, and why Pakistani and why the fashion industry in Pakistan is considered one of the areas that you can grow your wealth the most. And that's weird for me to think about, you know, in the exploitation of women in the country and exploitation of just Pakistani people in general. So, in that way, I feel like it has always been an especially since I started this journey, I'm so important to think about how I would financially be able to have an impact.

Lianne: Financially, and as you're saying systemically, as they're saying, I mean, it makes, it makes good sense that there would be this desire as a Pakistani fashion designer to counteract the unsustainability and the exploitation of fast fashion totally, and that you're uniquely poised to do that. So in temrs of social media, you've really been able to leverage that platform to already fulfill this mission that you're saying, I've seen you do multiple fundraisers for various organizations that are in need in the way that you're speaking about. As we've also spoken about, you know, social media can inspire your this model as a Pakistani woman to others who might share your desire for liberation. And it's a platform that makes you very vulnerable to attack. And so do you fear for your self when you return to Pakistan? Given the kind of hate crimes and honor killings, I don't mean from your own family, but, you know, from an enraged someone who maybe has been offended by your work?

 

Misha: Right? I mean, I don't really think about it that much. I know, people in my family have brought it up in conversation at times. My partner has brought it up a couple of times, when thinking about the kind of impact that I intend to have, because I don't think I'm at a place yet where I have the kind of reach that I think would put my life in real danger. Um, and I don't know, I don't know, I think that that makes me think about activists like Sabeen Mahmud, who was killed, because of her activism, and how that is a thing that happens in a place like Pakistan. But to be honest, it's really not something that I think about on a day to day basis. I mean, right now, the focus is to continue making art and being able to speak as much as I can. I'm an amplifier - I amplify as many voices as I can.

 

Lianne: Well, may it stay far from our minds and from our truth. The last question, I just want to bring it back to an earlier topic is if you can speak just for a minute about, again, particularly at this critical time that you are questioning your own womanhood and your own sexuality,  how has this work informed your sexuality and your relationship to your own body?

 

Misha: I think it's really allowed me to become a lot more comfortable in who I am, you know, not just physically because the act of casting my body has been so physical and forced me to examine, quite literally what my body looks like, um, but also just, you know, who I am as an artist, and what I want to say, and, you know, understanding that the things that I have to say, and the kind of art that I want to make is valuable, and being able to start conversations and inspire other women to talk about and think about their bodies and how they feel about them, and how they feel about their bodies in public spaces. And I think that the kind of the journey that I have gone on, not just in accepting my own body, in a physical and emotional way, but also in how that is allowing other women to do the same, I think has been super valuable for me.

 

Lianne: Beautiful. Well, thank you so much for sharing. So candidly, you've given us so much to think about, and I'm so grateful for everything that you've shared in this conversation.

 

Misha: Thank you so much for having me and for having a podcast like this that, you know, allows us to talk about these things that I feel like are seldom discussed, especially in Pakistan. So I have really valued the space and the time to be able to talk about these things and have things to

 

Lianne: Yes, it's so important.

 

If this episode turned you on, don't forget to rate and subscribe to the show. If you want to follow up on any of the resources in any of these conversations head over to www.strippersandsages.com Special thank you to Ben Newfrat for mixing all of Season One and for scoring original music for the show. Thank you to Ashrae Harishankar for mixing and editing this episode and to Sasha Carney, Casey Odesser and Ayla Khan for their fantastic research and development contributions. If you're interested in joining our team, it's a pretty sexy crowd, and we would love to have your help and support. So reach out. Stay sexy, folks

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