Sell clothes, not your honour, screams a billboard in Karachi, part of a mysterious campaign against the plethora of lawn advertisements in the city.
While no match for the number of banners and billboards advertising the latest lawn fabric collections, over a dozen from this campaign have popped up across town. Their main objection appears to be over ‘immorality’, since the advertisements feature female models in sleeveless or backless clothes with risque necklines.
The campaign has been attributed to unheard of groups such as the Women Education Society and the Women Professional Forum. Their anti-immorality advertisements have been spotted near Islamia College, along Shahrah-e-Faisal and in Gulshan-e-Iqbal and Gulistan-e-Jauhar.
“These are not paid advertisements. People are putting up banners over the billboards late at night,” said Akhter Sheikh, the head of the Karachi Municipal Corporation’s (KMC) outdoor advertisement department. “There is nothing we can do about it.”
The KMC and Sindh Outdoor Advertisers Association (SOAA) are clueless about who is behind the campaign, and no religious or political organisation has claimed it is their handiwork.
Even though the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) recently launched a campaign against vulgarity, it denies involvement. However, the spokesperson for its women’s wing Aliya Mansoor insisted that the campaign is a reflection of public outrage against the use of women as a ‘commodity’.
“Women from every section of society have been coming to us and pleading that something needs to done about the degeneration of our values,” Mansoor claimed.
According to her, lawn fabric has been in use for years but was ‘never marketed in such a vulgar way’. “Our campaign against nudity is not limited to billboards. The entire content on television needs to be checked. We are not against the media but there is a limit to freedom of speech and expression.”
She said JI is not scared of using its own name when it comes to defying ‘nudity’. “We need funds and resources to run such a drive through billboards and other means. But it remains our utmost desire to do that and we will do it.”
However, sources in the advertising sector believe JI is behind the campaign but is not using the party’s name to suggest that the movement has mass support. A member of the JI who did not want to be named for fear of repercussions confirmed the party’s involvement and explained that they were putting the messages over existing ads because they couldn’t afford to rent billboards on their own. It costs about Rs20,000 to rent a billboard for a month in Gulshan and up to Rs50,000 in Clifton.
“The banners have been put on the billboards by hired men,” the JI source explained, adding that they did it at night.
Outdoor advertisers are too scared to comment. “It is common for political and religious parties to take over billboards. If we remove their banners, they call and threaten us,” said an advertiser who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The ire of the campaigners isn’t restricted to angry slogans. At different sites, photos of models in lawn advertisements have been blacked out and banners have been torn down. A Lux advertisement featuring Meera and a Veet advertisement with Indian actor Katrina Kaif have not been spared either.
Ex-chairperson of the SOAA Mashood Merchant wonders why the ire was directed at billboards. “The same models appear in television advertisements in the same clothes. They should be stopped first.”
The legality of lawn ads
The KMC laws on the matter are vague. According to clause 5-1 (3) on the use of billboards, anything that is deemed vulgar or upsets any segment of society is prohibited.
“This is tricky,” said a KMC official. “Now it can be anyone’s guess what is vulgar and otherwise. Is showing arms, the back or the neck nudity? I can’t say.”
Abid Umer, the director of Al Karam, one of the largest manufacturers of lawn, says the advertisements comply with the laws. “Our advertisements are not even close to being vulgar. These campaigns don’t represent the majority of customers.”
There are laws against using women for advertisements in Saudi Arabia and Iran, he said. “If the government pass such a law here, we will comply with it. We advertise within the boundaries of morality.” He said that the Pakistan Advertisers’ Society must take notice of the situation. “This year there was a specific focus on billboards to connect with customers. Next year, I am expecting marketing to go digital. As brands we want to get noticed.”
Couturier Umar Sayeed, who also designs fabric for Al Karam, says it is time to fight back. “We make and advertise what the whole world wants to wear.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 6th, 2012.