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Thesis defences

PhD Oral Exam - Kanwal Syed, Art History

(We The Sinful Women): Urban Feminist Visuality in Contemporary Art and Feminist Movements in Pakistan After 9/11

Thursday, July 28, 2022 (all day)

This event is free


School of Graduate Studies


Daniela Ferrer



When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.

Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.


This dissertation provides a chronology of the circumstances that led to opposing but symbiotic representations of Pakistani urban gendered bodies as a site of contestation between imperialist and religious-nationalist patriarchies. It uses the War on Terror as a historical context to foreground a body of representative artworks by eight women artists that destabilize the oppressed-versus-pious rhetorical binary and tie the iconography of these artworks to diverse visual and popular cultures. It argues that these artists create “urban gendered subjectivities” through hybrid and rhizomatic ethnic pop-cultural material and symbolic signifiers; they do so not for a regional, religious, or nationalist identity but as a strategic feminist visual resistance against multiple patriarchies.

The attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, followed by the Global War on Terror waged in Afghanistan and the peripheries of Pakistan, had a massive impact on the region’s gender politics. For political gain, neocolonial imperialism and regional religious patriarchies exploited the rhetoric of a homogenized gendered Muslim body by substantiating it through their respective singular lenses: religiously oppressed or religiously pious and empowered in their subjugation. This gendered binary politics strengthened and reinforced existing patriarchal structures and further demonized urban women who stood up for their right to exist in a mutually conducive urban society.

Using cultural theory, art-historical scholarship, and gender studies through an emphatic postcolonial and non-Western feminist lens, this dissertation envisions an alternative art history by tracing feminist insurgency within urban Pakistan’s visual discourse at its primordial stages. Explicitly negating dichotomies, this dissertation gives credence to cultural, historical, and even individual complexities to gender representations of urban Pakistani women.

This dissertation aspires to unpack artworks that entail histories of ancestral wisdom, migratory anxieties, intergenerational feminist struggles, defiant ideologies, and colonial residues. The research warrants academic peripheral-gendered space within art historical authorship transnationally and domestically, much like the female artists under consideration, who strive to create a nuanced gendered visuality by challenging and destabilizing monolithic representations. For productive and ethical ways of gendered visual representations and knowledge sharing, this dissertation proposes that it is time that Pakistan is seen through the eyes of its alleged “sinful women.”

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