March Issue 2005
Interview: Frieha Altaf
“My independence intimidates men”
– Frieha Altaf
A: My first husband was never really too bothered about me and he was unfaithful. When I got married for the second time in 1988, I moved to America but in 1989 I came back to Pakistan for a while. Then I couldn’t get a visa to return. While I was working on it, my brother, who was living with my husband in the States at the time, informed me my husband was fooling around. So I decided not to go back. That was the end of that marriage. And then there was the third marriage.
We were living in Canada, I had two kids with my husband. During this time I got my diploma in fashion design while simultaneously teaching at the Barbizon Institute, the oldest modelling school in the world. But my husband and I weren’t getting along. He was involved with another woman. So I asked for a divorce. I had to fight him in court to win custody of the kids. I gave up all rights in order for him to sign a paper allowing me to take the children out of the country.
Q: Did the men in your life hold you back?
A: They always hold you back. Pakistani men like to control what women do, even what we wear, so do in-laws and family. It’s terrible. Society allows men to do what they want.
Women have to have financial independence. Men control you because they control your finances. And if you don’t have freedom, you don’t have anything. I was lucky as my father never stopped me from modelling or doing TV.
Q: Do you feel you single-handedly broke the boundaries as a young, single woman in the eighties?
A: Yes, I did. But it’s annoying to be compared to the slogan: “You’ve come a long way, baby.” It is very condescending because when you say women have come a long way, you imply that they were nowhere before that, as opposed to the Marlboro Man who is supposed to always have been macho.
Q: But isn’t it true — take yourself as an example, women have come a long way…
A:Well, let’s look at the cigarette. Virginia Slims is a slim, light cigarette, it’s not a Marlboro red.
Q: But why strive to be like a man?
A: Not like a man. Strive to be taken seriously. As a woman you do have the odds against you, you have to work harder. This applies to everyone who is oppressed. You have to work harder to be recognised. The flip side is that you end up being more sensitive. I feel sorry for people who have never had to prove themselves because they’re privileged, because you become a different human being [through struggle].
In the ’80s it was difficult. Everyone was against you. When I was discovered and asked to model, I jumped at it. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with being a model. My first shoot was a jewellery shoot, and a male friend of mine who was educated abroad and was ostensibly “modern,” had a problem with my pictures. He said they were vulgar as my neckline was too low. Suddenly I had all this opposition, and it did not just come from the lower or middle classes. My friends, and boyfriends were all against [my modelling]. They said, “How can you stand there with your legs wide apart?” I didn’t look at it like that. It was very exciting for me to look pretty — that is a natural thing for a young girl. But I still didn’t do a lot of things then.
Advertising wasn’t too good at the time, so I stuck to high-market products. Unfortunately that meant I wasn’t getting any money. I went through a lot of insecurity. I had graduated, I wanted to find a nice guy and settle down. In your twenties you are very idealistic and impressionable. Every female model is hit on as she is out there. She is thought of as easy, and dizzy. That’s simply not true. So I was also very defensive.
That was a much harder time. Now, modelling is a breeze.
Q: After divorce, were you more free to do as you wanted?
A: I was a magna-cum laude graduate so I wanted to use my mind as well. At that point Indus Valley had just started. So I went back and started to do some work with David Alyesworth and Shahid Sajjad. The good thing was that the industry was just developing at that time. Designers, photographers and choreographers were coming back from abroad. There were a lot of firsts for me. I organised the first show at Hindu Gymkhana, the first at a train station. Architects would design my sets. Unilever was really pushing me at the time to do a show. So I started Lux Style ki Duniya. Then I got serious. I gained more confidence, I needed an office and staff so I went about setting it up.
And then, at this point, I fell in love. So I closed shop and moved to Canada. I moved back to Pakistan in 2002.
Q: If you didn’t have to rebuild your life completely and become the sole breadwinner, would you have worked as hard to make something of yourself?
A: It was tough doing it all on my own, but it was also easier as there was no man telling me what to do. I had no plans to have this life. The ideal life would have been college, marriage, becoming an art professor and coming home and painting with the kids at home. But destiny played a big role in the direction that my life took. My father died. I had only 2000 dollars to my name in savings after my last marriage failed. So I was forced to work and support my kids. I started working for The News full time and produced a programme for GEO. The Jang group gave me a car and a good job. The idea was that my mother would look after my kids. However, at that point, my brother fell sick so she took off for America where he was. I would get up at a quarter to six, take my four-year-old son to Grammar School, sit at Dunkin Donuts for an hour before taking my three-year-old daughter to school. From there I would go to work, then pick the kids up at lunch, take them home, feed them, put them to sleep and go back to work. My mother’s home was in Gulshan-e-Iqbal, so I covered long distances, and it was exhausting. Then my brother died.
He was a very strong person. As he was dying, he told me he wasn’t afraid. My sister’s husband was also very sick at the time and my mother’s brother committed suicide at this point. So my mother lost a husband, son and brother in quick succession. I saw my mother and my brother’s strength and I realised I had to go on. You think you’re never going to get over it, but you do. I had no choice but to work for my children.
Q: You have stated in the past: “In this public field, we either go for the wrong type of men, or the wrong type of men go for us.” How do you differentiate between the two?
A: When you’re rich, good-looking and famous, a lot of men will go for you because you are the trophy wife. You are loved for your wealth, looks, popularity, but not yourself. I was approached by a lot of men like that. The right guys stayed away as they were intimidated. I intimidate a lot of men because I am strong and independent.
Q: Women are staying single longer today, and there has been a rise in single motherhood. But is this a change for the better?
A: Let’s face it, women have been brought up to believe that it’s OK to be controlled by men. It’s not. It’s not worth living a life full of hypocrisy and unhappiness. Your husband is fooling around with some other woman but where will you go, and what is going to happen to your kids? Those fears still hold women back. But things are changing. When I came back, I noticed there were so many single mothers. Yes, there are a lot more divorces now. When I was in my twenties, I was very insecure as my in-laws hated the fact that I was modelling, so, I gave it up. But when you stand up and hold your head high and you are confident, everybody else falls into place. I don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks today. And when you stop caring, they leave you alone or they start respecting you. I think it’s because they realise they can’t control you.
Q: Do you think you are more empowered than the average Pakistani woman?
A: When I turned 40, I had let myself go. I had put on 20 pounds and my looks were going. I decided to change things. I had finally secured myself financially, I had bought my own house, I had a car. So I started to look after myself. I started going out more and finding myself again.
Q: What about marriage?
A: That’s not really part of the plan! I’ve pretty much closed the door to that. A year-and-a-half ago I thought about it, but I said, no, my kids are growing up. I have also seen my mother go through changes, she is single too. She has become more social, has her set of friends, goes out. I asked her how she feels and she said, “it’s great, I’m free!” So she is also planning a life for herself. But she worries about me and what will happen after the kids go off to college. So maybe I should think about it, but it’s not like a career goal because if it becomes that, I’ll fall into a trap. Marriage is a lot of work. But being single isn’t a fear for me, even though sometimes I hate being single. It is frustrating and I hate doing the taxes, getting a water tanker, fighting about electricity bills. Maybe if I was married I wouldn’t be working so much as I’d have my husband’s needs to look after as well. But that depends on the man you find.
I am not a bitter, negative person who thinks things are over for me. If I find someone who I am happy with, who I could live with and who could live with me, who I believed is good to me and for me, and would be good to my children… I would love to have a companion. But there is no pressure anymore. I’ve already had my kids. I have a life, I go out a lot and enjoy myself and travel. So I’m OK.
Q: What has been your biggest accomplishment — the one you’re proudest of?
A: My kids are my greatest joy. I have a brother and a sister but my mother chose to live with me. Being able to be happy is an achievement, as is doing what you want to do. I’m in control of my life and that is an achievement. Professionally I think it was laying the model foundation, breaking the barriers. I have a lot of girls come up to me and say they admire me and they want to be like me.
Q: Do you like being a role model?
A: I don’t know if I am the perfect role model. But it is important to speak about my experiences. I think if you can give someone strength you’ve done a good job.
Q: As a much divorced, successful businesswoman, do you think society judges you?
A:I don’t care if they do. I almost married between my first and second marriage. The scenario was quite awful. On the day of the marriage, as I was having my make-up done and a thousand guests had arrived at the hotel, my husband-to-be decided not to go ahead with it. My family had to stand there and tell everyone to go home. It was humiliating. My friends were crying and my family was so upset, wondering what the world would think. But my father walked in and said, “Stop this. It’s good it happened this way. What is wrong with all of you.” I saw him choke as he was really upset, but he had so much strength and the wisdom to see ahead.
I think my would-be husband was under a lot of family pressure, but to this day I don’t know exactly what happened. Marrying a divorcee and ex-model was probably a factor. Today, these things no longer have such shock value. You have movies like The Runaway Bride! But in Pakistan, it’s always been such a big deal. Everyone came to my house to condole — it was like someone had died. It was quite an experience, but you go from strength to strength. You can’t become bitter. I knew I was a good person but I needed some counselling. I learned that I had made stupid decisions and judgments in my life, I shouldn’t have allowed the pressure to get to me. But you can’t believe that all men are alike. At 35, I came to terms with everything. I came into my own. I learned to love myself. I must have had some insecurity within that made me choose the wrong men. The most important thing is self-respect. If you have that, others will respect you.
I’m not interested in what my daughter’s classmates’ parents think of me. It’s more important what I think myself. That’s what is going to rub off on my child.
Q: Is the new empowered Pakistani woman, such as yourself, better off?
A: My mother’s ambition was to marry and have kids. So she married my father, raised her kids, and got what she wanted. I don’t look down on her, because she was happy, and she has lived a successful life. But for me personally, my life is great. Education and self-reliance are the way to go. If my daughter wanted to marry, I would advise her to study before doing so. But if she wants to just live with her husband and be submissive and that makes her happy, that’s her prerogative.