Gender roles have long been assigned to both sexes to determine how one acts, speaks, talks or behaves within the context of a society. Zenana and Mardana have traditionally been used to identify the spatial binaries inherent in inhibiting physical space. The separation of female and male quarters moved on from the Mughal era, where the social norm of “purdah” was observed by creating segregation in living areas. It allowed both sexes to practice their customary rituals and hand in their duties without male intervention. However, as a society we have come a long way since then, and the way we view gender roles has evolved, where urbanization has merged the Zenana Mardana into one. The limits of space and the neoliberal functioning of society demanded that both sexes contribute economically to running a household, urging women to step into their masculinity and men to embrace femininity as their roles as gender roles were becoming increasingly fluid.
An art exhibition was held recently at Frere Hall, Karachi revolving around this theme. Phenomena by Pomme, celebrating its 10th anniversary, presented an art exhibition, in collaboration with the culture department of the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC), honoring the masters and pioneers of the modern Pakistani art movement. The show was based on a gender sensitive theme “Zenana Mardana”. “For me, sex means no walls, I want to feel gentle, not because I’m a woman, but because I am. I want to feel powerful, not because I’m a man, but because I want to be, as a curator, I want every individual to have a masculine and feminine dynamic and embody positive traits that suit them regardless of gender,” says Pomme Amina Afzal.
Drawing on her inner transformation and observations, she curated ‘Zenana Mardana’ – A Tribute to Master Artists: Jamil Naqsh, Sadequain and Ismail Gulgee. To address the movement behind gender equality that has grown enormously over the past decade, she wanted to bring the new narrative of ‘segregation to integration’ to the fore. As society accepts new patterns, there is wider recognition of Zenana and Mardana traits in humans. In the art exhibition, which revolves around the blurring of gender binaries, renowned artists were encouraged to share their conceptual work and their vision on the proposed subject.
Presence of the feminine
Sayeda Habib, whose love for the arts is unparalleled, uses a dessert shrub to investigate the presence of the feminine in the natural world. By employing Rosa of Jurico, Rosa Maria or Palm of the Madonna, an ancient shrub known for its ability to “come back to life” after appearing to wither and die. It examines the creative forces that support birth, life and death. With her use of well-directed lines and natural colors, her work takes on a life of its own, as it emerges as an independent entity that invites the viewer to engage, explore and reflect on this natural phenomenon.
Abdul Jabbar turned to the spiritual realm to undo the binaries meant to help couples find their place in the world. Illustrated figures that appear asexual, giving them bodies that could indicate gender specificity. By keeping the physique neutral, he represented the masculine and feminine side that we all have within us. It is a symbolic representation of the yin and yang of our personalities; in the spiritual realm there is neither zenana nor mardana.
The invisible border
Meher Afroz, with his incredibly intricate work including purdah made with colossal paper, which does not mean “purdah” in its literal sense. Instead, she draws attention to the veil of respect between the sexes or that invisible boundary that coexists in relationships involving both sexes. Whether it is between a mother and her son, a father and his daughter, a husband and his wife, etc. It can be seen as a single layer or as a collection of layers that build up over time.
Two wheels of a cart
For Jimmy Engineer, the woman and the man are the two wheels of a cart; when they run in unison, there is the force of speed, and they arrive at their destination successfully. Her work presents men and women as a chance to reflect on their contribution to a relationship and find ways to fit in at intersections where it might have previously seemed impossible. Series of intriguing works, his work is that of the retrospective.
The art exhibit was truly a masterpiece and raised many points about gender fluidity and bias. In this way, it was a way to at least start the conversation with stimulating works of art.