Uncategorized 07.11.2019

I’m every woman

BY Asif

We often hear the term “woman of substance” for iconic women like Fatima Jinnah, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Austen and Nazia Hasan: all accomplished in their own right and a symbol of strength and inspiration to their kind. Although these women demand veneration and awe, I can’t help but wonder if they fought with their families to pursue an unconventional career. Did they live through heartbreak and bounce back believing in love? Was there a time in their lives when they felt aimless and lost? Since history often cloaks unglamorous realities such as these, we never quite know if these women had issues that are real to us.  But we are the sum of our experiences and our mistakes shape our lives just as much as our triumphs. Paper speaks to three diverse, talented and beautiful women who believed in themselves and had the courage to follow their dreams, no matter what the obstacles. Kiran, Mehreen and Asmaa are worth celebrating as they refused to be confined by conventional stereotypes and instead, dared to tread the road less travelled.

They told her she was too short and stocky to be a model, yet Mehreen Raheal stuck her ground to become one, and has been instrumental in fighting against the concept of size zero models in Pakistan.

For musician and thespian, Kiran Chaudhry, her whole life was about academics, climbing the corporate ladder, and living up to the expectations of a tough and ambitious father who wanted to see her become the prime minister. Yet one day she dropped it all to pursue her true calling, music.

Asmaa Mumtaz overcame a painful divorce and emerged stronger than ever as a superb stylist and entrepreneur. Asmaa found focus and a platform for creative expression as she launched ‘The Dresser’ and became the only woman in her strictly patriarchal family to run her own business.

In each of these three young, enterprising and unique women, there is a story and struggle that mirrors our own, giving women everywhere a reason to keep trying and to keep following their heart.

The path to self-discovery

If there’s one thing that all three women are dead clear about, it’s that you must allow yourself to be who you are instead of being enslaved by others’ expectations. All three have taken paths of their own choosing and are nothing short of a success story.

“In terms of music, the keera was always there,” asserts Kiran, who spent her early years at the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Islamabad. The school offered ‘a movement to music’ class that was considered a crucial aspect of early development and from the age of six to ten Kiran thoroughly enjoyed being able to sing and dance in that class. “We just used to put the music on and dance. It was surprising that the nuns were so hip!” she says as her laughter fills the room. Kiran has such a rich, hearty, from-the-gut laugh that the pleasure of any moment she is describing is almost palpable. It’s something with which any woman can empathise. When her family moved to Lahore, Kiran joined Lahore Grammar School, which offered singing classes with the eminent Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, a maestro of the Patiala Gharana, who became Kiran’s mentor, both musically and spiritually. After four years of intensive vocal training, Kiran completely disconnected with music as her academics took priority.

From always coming first in class to attending the prestigious United World Colleges on a scholarship and then acing it with an undergraduate degree in Philosophy, Politics & Economics at Oxford, followed by a postgraduate degree in Law, Kiran’s entire life was geared towards her father’s dreams for her. “My father toughened me up. At nine, I was afraid of the dark, so he made me go out alone and lock the house gate every night. He challenged me all the time, as he wanted to push me to reach my full potential.” Yet soon enough she began feeling like she was living someone else’s life. “Working in a top firm in London for four years, I found that I had totally become embroiled in the corporate world but did not have a life. I’ve got a freedom bug so it felt great to finally be financially independent, but I wasn’t truly happy, ” she admits.  So one day, after she had gathered together some savings and made some sensible investments, freeing her up to have more control over her life, Kiran left her lucrative corporate life and returned home to Pakistan. Even after completely overhauling an unfamiliar business and generating a massive increase in turnover for her family’s textile business, Kiran couldn’t shake off the feeling that this was not her true path. So, once she felt that she had made a considerable contribution to the business, she turned again to her first love: music. “Ultimately you have to be true to who you are,” advises Kiran.

It may seem natural for someone like Mehreen Raheal, daughter of popular media personality and activist Simi Raheal, to have forayed into the media, but Mehreen reveals incidents of how she was turned away by photographers for being “too fat”. “They would say you don’t have what it takes, you’re not going to make it. But my mother kept telling me every single day of my life that I was beautiful and I made up my mind to pursue my dream of modelling and acting. I thought to hell with all of you who want to put me down. I believe in myself. I believe in God and whatever will come to me, will come.” And so in 1998, Mehreen joined Nabeela’s advertising agency and got her first project with ICI. Using that as the first step, she embarked on advertising campaigns with Prestige communications that kindled her ambition and motivated her to work harder. Now as one of the most recognisable faces in the fashion industry, Mehreen represents some of the biggest brands in Pakistan.

As Asmaa Mumtaz began to deconstruct her life, she extrapolated the idea of creating a den for women where they could feel their best and so came ‘The Dresser’. “I wanted it to be a quirky little spa/studio space which feeds your soul and reflected a certain positive way of life,” Asmaa says. With a mother who is known for her unique sense of style, Asmaa tapped into her genes and all her art training at NCA, to conjure up a chic studio of personally crafted organic treatments, where ingredients are grown and freshly prepared for each customer. It helped that she was the scion of the famed Fazal Din pharmaceutical empire as that provided her the space to develop her products with her father’s lab technicians. Asmaa researched thoroughly to come up with all the recipes. “I sat down with my Dad’s lab guys who once created products for Elizabeth Arden and created a whole line for the studio. I really wish I had done chemistry, too,” she sighs. The Dresser not only offers a delicious array of facials, manicures and pedicures, it also has a closet to actually play dress up in; something you can utilise when you enlist for Asmaa’s personal styling services, which is her true passion.

Mehreen wears burnt orange cocktail dress with metal detail by SHEHLA CHATOOR. Price on request. White and brown diamond necklace with moss green south sea pearls and polki studs by GOLD. Price on request.  Lanvin metallic mini pop bag $1,450.

Kiran wears orange grecian gown by ZAHEER ABBAS. Price on request. Polki necklace, diamond and columbian emerald necklace, polki bracelet, diamond and south sea pearl earrings all by GOLD. Price on request.

The leap of  faith

Kiran started out making music with friends she had met at an informal jam session, ‘Brian and Rashid’, and then began jamming with every musician in Lahore that would entertain her. It was during one of these jam sessions that she heard Adnan play. “I was like, ‘Oh my God! This guy is really good.’ He had soul,” she says. Kiran had been looking for a guitar player. “Adnan came up me to and said, ‘If you ever need help with your music let me know,’ and I said, ‘I would really like to jam with you.’ So we did and it was so magical. On the journey you always intuitively know the ‘this is it’ moments. We both felt it,” she says.  After landing a jazz gig at Cosa Nostra’s soft launch, Caramel was born. Kiran’s mother has been critical to her success. She says, “As a trained classical singer, my mother used to play music in the house all the time. Every Sunday her Ustad would come and I used to just absorb it all. When I came back to Pakistan and first formed a band, my mother was so supportive; she came with me to the first few gigs, and always cheered me on. I don’t know if I could have made this career choice without at least one parent supporting me wholeheartedly.”

Mehreen is one of Pakistan’s top models with innumerable commercials to her name. What sets her apart from other models in the fashion industry is that not only did she refuse to change her body in order to be accepted; she was one of the first models who challenged the cliques in the industry (where models are groomed by photographers and then only allowed to work with them). As a principle, Mehreen worked with every photographer in the industry as her emphasis was on the quality of work. Mehreen did her first television series at the age of sixteen and never looked back. “The camera and I have had a rip roaring affair for so many years now. I just love it,” she says. Recently she starred in the Indo-Pak collaboration, Virsa. The film may not have done well at the box office but her acting was appreciated immensely. “I love that film and I am really proud of it. It was my first opportunity to work in India and I learnt so much from that experience,” she says.

NCA was a reality check for Asmaa, who came from the Lahore American School, “ My first year at NCA, I cried everyday like a Kindergartener. It was a bit of a culture shock for me. There were so many different people from different walks of life and I really didn’t fit in. I was a pampered (and severely arrogant) little LAS girl that was used to the good life, thrown into a sea of weird artsy types who really weren’t very nice. It was a bit like being in jail – I carried around cash and cigarettes to get out of all the ragging. As painful as that first year was, the next three years grounded me and brought me back to earth. I met my best friends and mentors that helped me become who I am today. So in retrospect going to NCA was one of the best possible things that happened to me.” Asmaa graduated with honours from NCA with a Bachelors in Fine Art and went on to study Make-up and Styling at the London College of Fashion. Despite doing something as niche as personal styling, business is rolling for this budding stylist with styling collections at fashion weeks for Maria B and Maheen Kardar of Karma, both retail queens in their own right. “I’ve been blessed to have so many great professionals believe in me. Nickie, Nina, Maria, Maheen and HSY, just to name a few. I really couldn’t have gotten this far without them,” she says. Asmaa loves to paint and she plans to introduce an element of a painter’s workshop at The Dresser, as she believes, “It’s not just about beauty. It’s about art at the end of the day.”

Asmaa wears dress by KAMIAR ROKNI, Charlotte Olympia black velvet pumps $ 875, Diamond bracelet, diamond and mother of pearl earrings and ring by GOLD. Price on request.
 
Mehreen wears black sequin dress by SADAF MALATERRE Rs. 25,000. Alexander McQueen clutch $1,495.20 carat emerald surrounded by polki necklace and ring by GOLD. Price on request.Manolo Blahnik pumps Mehreen’s own.

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end

Kiran and her guitarist, Adnan Sarwar, slowly fell for each other as two similar souls on a mutual journey of self-discovery; shunning old cloaks and donning new ambitions. Kiran gives Adnan credit for helping her on the path of self-actualisation and honing her talent. “If it hadn’t been for Adnan, maybe things would not have happened for us in the way that they did. He is an entrepreneur with a very clear vision. He made me realise that Caramel needed to be commercially viable and sustainable. We bring very different skill sets to the table and really compliment each other. He used to tell me I needed vocal training because my singing wasn’t up to the mark and that used to drive me wild, but if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have taken my vocal training so seriously. He’s really guided me through everything and been nothing short of a mentor. I’m really indebted to him for helping me become who I am today and for believing in me and taking a chance on me when everyone else thought I was gambling my life away on a whim. This partnership has survived through testing times because of the great deal of love and respect we have for each other,” she says.

As their band grew, so did their relationship, but after being with each other for just over a year and a half, they felt that their work had to take precedence over their relationship. “As two fairly opinionated and strong personalities, we clashed constantly and while that made us excel creatively, creating a fiery mix, it was not the best thing for a personal relationship,” admits Kiran. When Kiran and Adnan broke up, they decided to part ways professionally as well. She says, “We went through six months of hell, because when emotions are involved, it’s painful. Of course there is a grieving process but then eventually you come out of it.” Kiran tried going solo for a while and did well but realised Caramel was strongest when Kiran and Adnan were together. “It was just no fun without him; I missed the creative process we would go through together, I missed having a guide and a collaborator, who would see things differently from me. Things started to become stale.” So, they decided to bring Caramel together again even though their personal relationship was over. “I thought to myself why should we let go of something that works so well?  We were such a great team so we thought, why lose that? As adults we really have to learn to get over things and move on. Not every relationship is forever, and most are there to teach you something about yourself. So, ‘learn the lesson’ and move forward. I think it’s weird to harbour ill feelings against anyone; it shows that you haven’t actually learned from the experience and are still stuck in a limited mindset. Adults should be able to make rational decisions, and set appropriate boundaries. Hate is just a primitive response by a bruised ego.  I’d like to believe that we are more evolved that that,” she says. It is so commendable and refreshing to see two people who were mature enough to stay together professionally, even after the end of their personal relationship. Kiran makes a very interesting and thought provoking point. She says, “We have to get over this ‘the one’ mindset. You really can’t expect one person to fix everything. It’s too much pressure. You’re ‘the one’ for yourself. Other people just reflect that self-love that you generate internally and give to yourself.”

Kiran wears red jumpsuit by MUSE Rs. 18,000. Gold Alexander McQueen clutch approx $1,500. Rings and polki studs by GOLD. Price on request.

For Asmaa Mumtaz ‘the one’ did exist. “He was my whole world,” she concurs. So when that relationship fell apart, she did, too. “When I got married, I believed without a shadow of a doubt, that this is the man I would spend the rest of my life with. Divorce is one of the most traumatic experiences one can have, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. There are so many people involved and they all get hurt in the process,” says Asmaa with painful candour. She met her ex-husband, the drummer Farhad Humayun, at NCA while she was in her second year and he returned for a project after graduation that required a woman with long nails. “I starred in his stupid churail movie,” she recalls. Asmaa and Farhad dated for three years, were married for four, and after seven years of deep association, the relationship fell apart. “Marriage is a commitment, it was never an option for me to leave but we realised that there was really nothing else we could do.” Even with six months of seeing a therapist together, they came to the same conclusion. “It’s not an easy decision to make, but once you do, it’s liberating.” Asmaa is an optimist and continues to believe in love and marriage. She says, “I still believe in marriage. It’s a celebration of love and commitment. It’s reassuring to see my parents who have been married for over forty years. I am sure they must have had ten years that were really tough but ultimately they make each other happy and respect each other. It is beautiful to see that.”

Mehreen has always been a hopeless romantic. “I wanted to get married since I was five. I was always in search of true love. For somebody to come and sweep me off my feet,” she says. When Mehreen and Mohammed fell in love, she realised they had struck the perfect balance and tied the knot. “We spent the first year fighting like mad and then things just fell into place. We have the craziest relationship. I’m like a jack in the box and he’s very laid back so we are complete opposites but he’s allowed me to be who I am, and it works both ways,” she says. Mehreen confesses that life has altered her idea of “that fairytale love”. She says, “ I am such a romantic soul, but I have become so practical. Of course we have those magic moments but what I cherish most about our relationship is that we are there for each other through the good and bad times.” Mehreen is candid about having “manic mood swings” and says, “I am not an easy person to live with. When you meet me for ten minutes, you will think ‘Oh! She’s so bubbly and fun’, but when things are not going my way I am a mess. Mohammad has loved me and understood me at my worst and that’s what makes our bond so strong. That is why I respect him so much. Now that I am in a good place in my life, I want him to have me at my very best because he deserves it,” she says.

Asmaa wears ballerina blouse RS. 8,400 and orange silk pants Rs. 8,400, both by MUSE.Tweed CHANEL bag. Necklaces, rings, earrings and bracelet by GOLD. Price on request. Belt Asmaa’s own.

It’s always darkest before the dawn

In a society where we are taught to hide and cover up, where revealing your problems is a sign of weakness at best, and ammunition for retribution at worst, all three women are unabashedly open about their personal dilemmas. “In a society like Pakistan, we are encouraged to lie,” bemoans Kiran. “You become a good liar just to hold on to your sanity. Especially as women, we are encouraged to lie about our boyfriends for instance, because parents or society, don’t want to know the truth. But the worst thing about lying, in any way shape or form, is that it cuts you off from who you really are; you lose yourself in your desire to please or pacify other people. I had to ‘unlearn’ everything and stop lying to everyone, including myself,” she says.

Even though life was at an all time high for Kiran during her period abroad where her career as a lawyer was soaring, something kept chipping away at her soul until a colleague at her London law firm (whom she had always thought was a particularly empowered woman) suggested a ‘life coaching’ course. She says, “At first, I was so skeptical. I was thinking self-help is so lame! I don’t need to do this. I’m way smarter than this. But it’s unbelievable what it did for me. It’s remarkable how you can accelerate your own personal development so much in just one weekend; I can safely say that the person that walked into that course was a completely different person from the one that walked out. All in one intense weekend.”  Talking about things in a group forum and sharing other people’s issues and dilemmas, was truly a life-changing experience for Kiran. She realised that her story was no different from anyone else’s; that we all yearn for the same things, we all crave living a life that is authentic and fulfilling; we all face the same social pressures that lead us to make choices that may not be the best for us. One particular assignment in the course was a ‘happiness exercise’, where she had to remember the last moment in her life that she was truly, ‘ecstatically happy’ and then repeat the activity that she had been involved in at that time. This took her back to her fondest memories of holding a hairbrush (as a mock microphone) in front of the mirror and belting out songs, as a child. From there on, the pursuit of happiness was clear.

When Asmaa’s marriage fell apart, not only was she devastated, her parents fell apart as well in the collateral damage that accompanies any divorce. The best thing that she did, she says, is to seek therapy, not just as an individual but also as a family, with her parents, too. “In a lot of relationships there is so much baggage and bitterness that you need an intermediary to sort you out. There are patterns of behaviour that we have since childhood and we don’t realise how damaging they are to us. A lot of forgiveness happens in therapy that sets you free. We really need to let go of the stigma attached to seeing a therapist, and understand that it helps us be stronger, happier people. Bless my mother for dragging me to one and kudos to my family for actively engaging in therapy,” she says. Apart from this personal emancipation, therapy also strengthened her as a person that allowed her to let go of preconceived notions about marriage. “You have to be a complete human being before you get married and not hope for another human being to complete you because that is unrealistic and cannot happen. That said, I still believe whole heartedly in marriage and committing your whole life to another person, I just have a more realistic view of it,” Asmaa says.

Mehreen was a rebellious teenager. She recalls, “Adolescence was a very difficult time for me because my father was away most of the time and my mother and I didn’t get along as we were constantly at loggerheads. I had lost track of who I was. There was a turning point in my life; I was out late with my friends and when I came back I saw my mother on the prayer mat, crying. She used to worry about me and wait up for me every night, but she never uttered a word, as she was scared of how I would react. That was the moment I decided I could not put my mother through that. I realised I was trying too hard to fit in and I didn’t like the person I had become. Slowly but surely I started spending more time with my family instead of phony friends and found happiness in taking care of my family, which was extremely rewarding.” It was during the same tumultuous period that Mehreen was trying to get a break in the fashion industry. In order to appease the fashion and modelling industries, she embarked upon a grave quest to shed weight. “It came down to the point where I stopped eating completely because everybody said I was fat. The lightest I have been is 79 pounds, which made me look sick. When I wasn’t working I was sleeping since I had no energy. I was going through bouts of severe depression. My mother sent me to a psychiatrist who prescribed medicines which actually triggered off a worse reaction than before.” Eventually Mehreen learnt that success comes only with knowing and accepting oneself and her career is proof of that.

Asmaa wears top and pants by KAMIAR ROKNI. BOTTEGA VENETA knot clutch $ 1,380. Bracelets and rings by GOLD. Price on request

The future is bright , the time is now

One of the first things one notices about Kiran is her positive energy. “The world is my oyster and it feels great,” she exclaims. “It’s a far cry from the corporate law world and I’m glad I pursued my passion.  Learning new things is challenging but it always excites me. I think we, as adults should never let go of that childlike wonder and curiousity. I feel like I’ve squeezed all I could possibly have out of life thus far. That has been the underlying aim for me, to squeeze all the juice, the sweetness and goodness of out of life and really savour it,” she says. Although Kiran’s talent could lead her anywhere in the world, her immediate future will most likely take her to India. “We would love to do more work in India because they actually have an industry and it is booming. Also, they understand and appreciate quality. There’s also this curiosity about Pakistan. So, you’re going to see a lot more international collaborations, and I see myself as part of that movement,” she says. Kiran is committed to being a singer, but knows that she has just gotten started and that her path could take her in many directions. “This is just the beginning of a long journey,” says Kiran, “and I am happy to walk that path in a natural way and not over-plan it.” Club Caramel’s first album is yet to be launched, as they are releasing it single by single.

With an enviable portfolio of television commercials, plays and films, Mehreen’s set her eyes on opening up her own restaurant. “I want to start a restaurant which is like a little knowledge factory with tons of books so people can read while being spoilt by yummy food. I have started working on developing my own recipes, as I love to cook.” While that is Mehreen’s long-term goal, for now she is thoroughly enjoying her time in the media. “ I love being in front of the camera and don’t want to give it up right now,” she admits. Mehreen advises young girls to live their dream but “think about where you are heading. Modelling is not going to be a permanent thing so you need to have a back up plan.”

Asmaa is optimistic about the future. “Life has been great, I don’t have any regrets, nor can I complain. I’m super lucky to have a great support system of amazing family and friends. I’ve learnt from my mistakes and become a lot stronger as a person. I have realised I must stand on my own two feet. When you are in your twenties, you are in the process of finding yourself; who you are, what you want, what you want to be. There are a lot of external factors and people that can play on your feelings. After thirty and after therapy, you gain a confidence and belief in yourself which equips you to deal with people and situations better,” she says. Asmaa advises young women to accept and embrace themselves. She says, “Ultimately your attitude towards life determines your success and happiness and how good or bad you look and feel. Your way of life, what you eat, what you think, all shows on your face. This is something my mother has always taught me. If you harbour negative feelings, those negative feelings will show on your face, corrupt your aura and energy and just make you feel horrible. So you must always remain positive, work hard at whatever you do and give it your best. If it doesn’t work out – let it go. Learn from it. Believe in yourself. Be patient and just keep working. That’s what people overlook because they do everything in a rush for the money or the fame. At the end of the day your target should be to produce good work and make a difference.” Asmaa is working on offering her delicious organic products for retail soon and we can’t wait.

Meeting these dynamic women, it is clear that if you are afraid of failing, if you are not prepared to be wrong, you won’t come up with anything original. If none of them had ever made the mistakes they made, if they hadn’t loved and lost, if they hadn’t swayed off course, they wouldn’t be who they are today. The secret to their success has been to learn from their mistakes and emerge even stronger than before. Each of these three divergent journeys embody essentially the same pursuit and the story of every young woman:  a discovery of the self, being comfortable in one’s own skin, having a dream and no fears of where the pursuit of true happiness would take them. Kiran, Mehreen and Asmaa dared to take a leap of faith, they believed in themselves and followed their hearts. These three girls are an inspiration to all women as despite the odds they worked hard to make a success of their lives and live life on their own terms. Here’s to hoping more women can be like these empowering role models, who are proof of the fact that hard work paves the way for success and the journey is most definitely worth it.