@maliha_z_art / Instagram

This incredibly inspiring artist is on a mission to celebrate Pakistani women one illustration at a time

"When we come together as a community, the change is even greater."

27 Mar 2019

How many famous badass Pakistani women can you name? How about Samina Baig - the first Pakistani woman to scale Mount Everest? Shazia Parveen - Pakistan’s first female fire fighter? Zenith Irfan - the first female motorcyclist to ride across Pakistan? Or what about anti-slavery activist Veeru Kohli, who campaigned to end bonded labour in Pakistan after twenty years of enduring slavery herself?

That was probably a no, which is exactly the problem that 23-year-old Pakistani artist Maliha Abidi is trying to fix.

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Tell me, what does your creative space consist of? In my element. This studio is my happy place (after my living room couch, cmon! Lets be real.) It has given me inspiration to create the things I believe in for example the “Pakistan for Women” book. I remember, I always wanted my own art studio and I did have my first studio at 19 in San Francisco but it was temporary. This one is more permanent. This is a room in my house which has a big table, an easel, a few hundred unfinished drawings, a dozen canvases, a mural, a mirror, some plants, okay a lot of plants, my box of postcards and stamps, a few cardboard tubes, a lot of pencil trash on the carpet (I’ll vacuum soon) , Frida Kahlo themed coasters, and a billion art supplies. Can’t wait to read your responses. Also, LINK IN BIO to PRE-Order my book! 🙏🏼 and follow me on Twitter @maliha_z_art P.S for young artists, the current corner of your little bed room is the most valuable art studio you ll ever have because that’s where your journey of being an artist began. I miss that corner ✨ #myartstudio

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If you want to plug that deficit in your knowledge, Maliha’s Instagram is a good place to start. She’s been posting her art on social media since 2012 and has a not-exactly modest following of over 46k. Her feed is littered with bright, arresting oil paintings which she creates from the studio in her spare bedroom near Sussex. They almost exclusively feature fascinating women from disparate cultures; particularly highlighting Pakistani women with brave and brilliant stories to tell.

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@Malala ‘s portrait. Worked on it with all my heart, to draw someone who inspires thousands everyday around the globe! ✨🌸 This illustration is a part of a bigger project which I have been working on since over a year ✨ #womenempowerment #feminism #Malala #PakistanForwomen

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Women, she says, have always been her first inspiration.

"The idea behind portraying women in my work was because; the world for a woman is so different, look at our history, look at our rights, our movement and not just in South Asian countries," she explains, "Women have to go a great distance just to get a certain right and we do not celebrate them enough."

Though she now lives in the UK, Maliha grew up in Pakistan, in what she describes as a "constant art workshop" with an incredibly supportive family who nurtured and encouraged her talent.

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Illustration of Ayesha Farooq ✨ She is Pakistan’s first female fighter pilot. She has always been a confident girl who was interested in outdoors activities. When she used to watch 6th September, Pakistan defence day, shows, she used to feel inspired and motivated and since a very early age knew that she belonged in the Air force. Facebook: Maliha’s Art Twitter: Maliha_z_art This illustration is a part of a bigger project which I have been working on since over a year ✨ #AyeshaFarooq #Pakistansfirstfemalefighterpilot #PakistanForwomen

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"I think I come from a privileged background – in terms of the family I grew up in-compared to the other women in Pakistan who face oppression and didn’t get the rights I had,” she says, “Pakistan for me is a happy place, but like every country it has its problems and I am here as a Pakistani to help contribute to the solution; through my art, through my writing."

Her contribution is her book; ‘Pakistan for Women’ which she wrote, illustrated and kick-started herself: "even the pencils are self-funded!" It is the first book of its kind to be published in Pakistan, celebrating 50 stories of its women; changemakers, rebels, success stories, even rock stars.

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Illustration of Asma Jahangir A name known across the globe for Human rights. during her lifetime, changed lives of many. Symbol of feminism in Pakistan. In Oct, 2018, she won the @unitednations human rights prize as-well. This illustration is a part of a bigger project which I have been working on for over a year ✨ #AsmaJahangir #WomenEmpowerment ✨🌸 #PakistanForWomen

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"When I sat down to think about it, my list exceeded to over 80 names. I could have gone to 1000 by the end,” she explains, "By that point I was like, what is going on here? How is it that we are not hearing about these stories? It inspired me so much that I wanted to share it with other girls on a larger scale, so that they feel the same way."

The stories in her book are true tales of entrepreneurial spirit, bravery and determination in the face of often seemingly insurmountable odds. She hopes that it will have a particular message for young girls growing up in Pakistan.

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Illustration of Shazia Parveen First female fire fighter of Pakistan. Growing up, she always wanted to serve people like her father did. When she heard that the fire fighting unit is hiring, she was the only women to complete the intense training and be selected. 🔥 Today, she is the lead fire rescuer. This illustration is a part of a bigger project which I have been working on for over a year✨ Facebook: Maliha’s Art Twitter: Maliha_z_art #ShaziaParveen #Femalefirefighter #WomenEmpowerment✨🌸 #PakistanForWomen

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"The idea is to show these women that they can do whatever they want and that there should be no obstacles. There is this thing in Pakistan where, in some cultures and some families, people just either do not support what the girls want to do or they just say ‘oh well do the usual things; be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer and wait for a marriage proposal.’" She says, "I want to show them that there are so many other possibilities out there for you and if you are worried about success in these fields because your parents or elders have made an excuse, ‘oh because we are in a poor country you may not be as successful as in other countries’ here is an entire book here of women who have not only excelled in their fields in Pakistan- but all over the world."

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Illustration of Veeru Kohli An activist that millions of Pakistani bonded labour need. She herself was a bonded labour before standing up against the slavery and bringing change. Her story is astonishing and one that not many know. ✨ This illustration is a part of a bigger project which I have been working on for over a year ✨ to be announced on the 13th of January Facebook: Maliha’s Art Twitter: Maliha_z_art #VeeruKohli #WomenEmpowerment #PakistanForWomen ✨🌸

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Yet Maliha hopes the book will have a global message, which not only raises awareness of these criminally overlooked female icons, but reminds people that we have a duty to empower others.

"When we come together as a community, the change is even greater," she says, "Even one voice matters so much because you may be give someone else a voice - you can empower people, you can make them heard."

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Illustration of Malka e Taranum (Queen of Melody) Noor Jehan remains someone who shaped music and Art culture in Pakistan. With her melodious voice and charm, she was loved by many and is a symbol of empowerment for today’s artists. This illustration is a part of a bigger project which I have been working on for over a year ✨ Facebook: Maliha’s Art Twitter: Maliha_z_art #NoorJehan #WomenEmpowerment ✨🌸 #PakistanForWomen

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After our conversation she is off to a lecture at the University of Sussex, where she is studying neuroscience: "I eventually want to start an female organisation that combines neuroscience with art, to give women a platform to pursue their creative side and also learn at the same time."

Looks like Maliha may one day soon, have to add herself to that book.