In Pakistan, a series of vibrant murals has gone viral, inciting discussion, online and in city streets, about gender-based violence and discrimination. Young women artists changed the landscape of the country’s largest cities as they worked with communities to turn local people’s stories into art that claims public spaces for messages of tolerance and peace.

Fearless Collective founder Shilo Shiv Suleman, from India, works with local residents to paint a mural in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi. (Fearless Collective)
Fearless Collective founder Shilo Shiv Suleman, from India, works with local residents to paint a mural in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi. (Fearless Collective)

In the city of Lahore, the gray, concrete side wall of a National Bank of Pakistan office has been transformed with a mural colored with vivid splashes of crimson and gold. A legend in Urdu asks: ‘What will people say? But we are also people; what will we say?’ The larger-than-life painting is one of several that recently have brought new color to Pakistani cities and new conversations to Facebook,  Buzzfeed, the South Asian edition of Vogue, and Pakistani newspapers Dawn and The Express Tribune.

mural
A Fearless Collective mural in Lahore asks, “What will people say? But we are also people, what will we say?” Photo: Fearless Collective

Pakistan’s women have long faced violence and discrimination. The United Nations’ annual Gender Inequality Index last year ranked Pakistan near the bottom—147th out of 188 countries assessed—for women’s health and access to education and political power. Improving women’s rights remains controversial. This spring, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN), passed a law in Punjab province to strengthen protection for women against domestic abuse, religious and conservative political groups threatened to launch public protests in response.  

The new public murals in Lahore and other Pakistani cities are a living testament to the power of feminist solidarity to unite people across borders and to create new narratives and dialogue on these issues. The project brought an Indian artist, Shilo Suleman, across the two countries’ still-disputed border to support a ground-breaking dialogue on social issues faced by women and men in both countries.

In her home country, Suleman founded a group, Fearless Collective, following the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old New Delhi medical student in 2012. The case stunned India and led to what many women’s activists described as fear mongering that deterred women from entering public spaces.

In response, Suleman gathered visual artists, filmmakers, street artists, photographers and advocates around the globe to use art to tell their stories about gender-based violence. In 2015, Pakistani sexual rights activist Nida Mushtaq invited Suleman to join her for some work in Pakistan. Their project, Reclaiming Public Space Through Street Art, received support from USIP’s Peace Innovation Fund, which provides small grants to support creative approaches to peacebuilding throughout Pakistan. The project also was featured in a recent webcast panel discussion at USIP.

Creating a New Narrative

Shilo Shiv Suleman and local residents gather before Fearless Collective’s mural in Rawalpindi. Photo: Fearless Collective
Shilo Shiv Suleman and local residents gather before Fearless Collective’s mural in Rawalpindi. Photo: Fearless Collective

Mushtaq and Suleman say their project centers on a common goal of the feminist movement and graffiti artists—to reclaim the right to public space. Women in South Asia face “a state of disarray and decay,” Suleman said. “Our job as artists and as activists was to transmute these spaces to bring them to their highest potential while sharing stories that are relevant and contextual to us and are beautiful at the end of the day,” she said.

Before producing a mural in any locale, Fearless Collective holds workshops with members of the community to identify a message and an iconography for the painting. This step engages those community members, including marginalized groups, in deciding what narrative is projected through the murals in the public space. The collective encouraged women and their supporters to paint the murals, and openly discuss their content, together.

During the three-week project in Pakistan, the group and its partners painted murals in three cities, and held a street exhibit of paintings and pictures from the project in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city. In Lahore, Fearless Collective hosted workshops during the Faiz Festival—a four-day celebration of music, art and literature. Attendees focused on societal pressures and expectations that weigh on women, often silencing their voices.

In Rawalpindi, Fearless Collective’s artists worked with the transgender community. They painted a mural depicting Babli Malik, the leader of a local transgender group, Wajood. The mural shows Malik riding a motorcycle with the message Hum hain khuda-e-takhleeq—“I am a creation of God.”

In Karachi, the group worked in Lyari Town, a neighborhood dominated by slums. “Lyari’s story is always told as a place with gangs, but we wanted to tell a different story through some beautiful art,” Mushtaq said. “It was an attempt to drop the labels that marginalize certain places and people.”

Is Art the Future of Peacebuilding?

Fearless Collective’s painting on the crumbling wall of a street in Karachi’s Lyari Town. Photo: Fearless Collective
Fearless Collective’s painting on the crumbling wall of a street in Karachi’s Lyari Town. Photo: Fearless Collective

Other Pakistani initiatives, such as IamKarachi and Lahore’s Street Art Pakistan, have created aesthetically beautiful walls with the help of local artists. But Fearless Collective’s Reclaiming Public Spaces project is unique in its emphasis on engaging with communities and painting only narratives that are developed collectively by the communities’ members. 

“We worked with the community and everyone was involved,” said Suleman. “Every chai wallah [tea seller] every ladder seller, and all of the kids off of the street join in on the painting, so apart from the finished product—which is the wall—there’s also the finished product of painting in a space for four days and building relationships. We’re trying to show that through storytelling one builds a sense of empathy…and [to] create impact through beauty,” she said.

The intensive engagement of the community helps to assure the murals’ upkeep, said Mushtaq. “Because they [the paintings] were created with the community, the community ends up taking care of them. We all feel a certain affiliation to the murals and take collective ownership of them.”

Fearless Collective’s work speaks to the need for dynamic, participative storytelling for social change to create dialogue on gender and sexuality issues that are often seen as taboo in South Asia.

Amy Calfas is a program assistant with the Center for South and Central Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Related Publications

Pakistan’s Growing Problem with its China Economic Corridor

Pakistan’s Growing Problem with its China Economic Corridor

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

By: Uzair Younus

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has deepened the decades-long strategic relationship between the two Asian nations. But it has also sparked criticism, including that it burdens Pakistan with mountains of debt, allowing China to use “debt-trap diplomacy” to gain access to strategic assets. While some of this criticism is valid, a closer look indicates that concerns around debt sustainability, tepid economic growth and overall economic and social instability in Pakistan predate CPEC. Moreover, it is the lack of long-term structural reforms that has stymied equitable socioeconomic progress in Pakistan.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Economics & Environment; Democracy & Governance

The Evolution and Potential Resurgence of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan

The Evolution and Potential Resurgence of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

By: Amira Jadoon

Following its formation in 2007, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) emerged as one of Pakistan’s deadliest militant organizations. Military efforts severely curtailed the TTP’s ability to launch attacks by 2016, but recent signs—including a deadly attack in Quetta on April 21—suggest the group is attempting to rebuild its operational capacity. This report charts the rise and decline of the TTP and explores options for the Pakistani state, with cooperation and support from the United States, to stifle its resurgence.

Type: Special Report

Violent Extremism

Extending Constitutional Rights to Pakistan’s Tribal Areas

Extending Constitutional Rights to Pakistan’s Tribal Areas

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

By: Umar Mahmood Khan; Rana Hamza Ijaz; Sevim Saadat

When Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas were officially merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in May 2018, the five million residents of the former tribal areas acquired the same constitutional rights and protections—including access to a formal judicial system—as Pakistan’s other citizens. This report, based on field research carried out by the authors, explores the status of the formal justice system’s expansion, finding both positive trends and severe administrative and capacity challenges, and offers recommendations to address these issues.

Type: Special Report

Justice, Security & Rule of Law

India, Pakistan choke on their smog. Can they clear the air?

India, Pakistan choke on their smog. Can they clear the air?

Monday, March 29, 2021

By: Jumaina Siddiqui; Zaara Wakeel

South Asia’s extreme smog worsens each winter, helping to kill an estimated 1.2 million Indians and 128,000 Pakistanis annually—more than have died in either country from the COVID virus. As pollution this past winter exacerbated the pandemic, India’s and Pakistan’s governments responded with mutual blame. Yet COVID, and a sudden moment of détente between these bitter rivals, could offer an opportunity to address the smog crisis, and build rare collaboration with the only strategy that can work: a joint one. The governments, their U.S. and international allies and civil society should use this chance to jumpstart such an effort.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Economics & Environment

View All Publications