What happens when a former American model comes to Pakistan to attend a fashion week, but instead ends up at the Red Mosque?
Hailey Gates left the runway to take up television journalism on Vice magazine’s new and much-hyped network Viceland. Her show called States of Undress, follows her as she travels to conflict spots around the world under the guise of attending fashion weeks.
In her first episode, Gates ventures to Karachi and not surprisingly, doesn’t spend much time around the runway. For someone who doesn’t seem to agree with religious extremism, the model-turned-journalist is an extremist in her own way.
Her journalistic extremism comes to the fore when she explores the fashion industry of Pakistan, which depicts the country’s liberal-minded elite and then goes on to meet the country’s “most wanted man,” Abdul Aziz Ghazi. She doesn’t interview the middle class, or the working class, nor does she present the point of view of those individuals who consider themselves to be moderate Muslims, which make up a significant portion of our population.
Although she manages to highlight real issues faced by the country such as the plight of acid burn victims, and the energy shortage experienced by an ever-growing population, she appears to find no middle ground in her portrayal of the Pakistani society. She arrives in Pakistan brimming with biases, which inevitably influence her reporting throughout the episode. For instance, the episode opens with Gates entering a reputable hotel in Karachi after a thorough overview of the security precautions of the hotel. If the four security gates packed with bomb detectors, metal detectors, and sand bags (that withstand bomb explosions) weren’t enough, a security adviser suggests she book a room on the fourth floor of the hotel “just in case there was some circumstance in which we needed to jump out of our windows.”
Her most absurd assumption about Pakistan, perhaps, was that women don’t wear heels. “I didn’t bring high heels because I didn’t think people wore high heels here,” she says.
We dress conservatively compared to the West, and that’s a safe assumption to make, but you’re also attending a fashion show in a secure hotel, amidst designers whose clothes tend to reveal more than just our hands, so it’s a little ridiculous to assume that a full length, half-sleeved dress would be inappropriate on the grounds that “obviously the arms aren’t covered so that’s not good.”
What she paints is a gruesome picture of the country — a picture which she had set out to achieve from day one. The neutrality of journalism is lost in States of Undress. While it makes for interesting television in the West, she has successfully reaffirmed the stereotypes of Pakistan generated by the West, through such comments.
While the issues she reveals are newsworthy and important to highlight, other journalists have visited the same country and have left with a much more balanced view, which counteracts the negative depiction we endure in Western media.
Photojournalist Brandon Stanton for example, travelled all over Pakistan for his Humans of New York Facebook page. He visited the rural areas in the north of Pakistan as well as Lahore and Karachi. What he managed to do was help the country by highlighting bonded labour and poverty, which were then combated with support from people all around the world. His biggest feat, however, was when he won the hearts of millions of Pakistanis with the parting message he posted on Facebook. His heartwarming message didn’t cover up any of the country’s ugliness, but it also acknowledged its unique beauty.
Gates, on the other hand, did no such thing. As the episode progresses, we see the depiction of Pakistan deteriorate with each scene, but with any movie you watch, you wait for the light at the end of the tunnel. Gates does not end her tour with an informed opinion, and so takes home all the Western stereotypes she had arrived with.
Reiterating her earlier assumption that her arms not being covered during the fashion show is “not good,” Gates concludes her episode with the statement “In a culture where what you wear can have devastating consequences, style can be an act of bravery.”
Do I get a medal for wearing a T-shirt to work today?
View the episode here:
Published in The Express Tribune, April 13th, 2016.