Last year, the popular Pakistani songwriter Momina Mustehsan appeared in a soft drink TV spot in which she surprised some young men with their freestyle skills.
Pakistani squash player Noreena Shams responded to the ad with a post on Facebook saying she was ignoring real sportswomen by the advertising industry, while popstars were given a platform to show athletic skills they did not really possess.
Shams said she would like to see a Pakistani women’s footballer like Asmara Kiani in the advertising, rather than the famous singer. She signed as: “A struggling international racquet (with less beauty and more passion).”
Mustehsan, who is one of Pakistan’s largest music stars, says that a lesson from this post has been learned.
“The thing is that I agree with her 100%,” she said. “Brands also have a social responsibility, and when they say they want to break stereotypes, we should recognize real athletes who have the skills I do not have.”
A few months later, when the singer was promoted as a spokeswoman for a series of friendships with international footballers to promote sport in Pakistan, she had the opportunity to make amends.
She told the organizers she would make the performance only if the captain of the Pakistani women’s football team, Hajra Khan, were also brought on board.
“If I can do something about it and not because I want to devour the spotlight, I really have no right to talk about the empowerment of women,” she said. “If we look at each other as our competitors, none of us will succeed, we must build ourselves together so that we do not mutilate each other.”
Mustehsan reached fame overnight after a dream debut on the program Coke Studio, the highest rated music show in the country. She sang a duet with Pakistan’s celebrated singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. The song, Afreen Afreen, essentially a tribute to female beauty, catapulted the young singer into the public.
A video of performance has been viewed on YouTube for almost a billion times. Mustehsan retains a huge new generation and has received a dozen lucrative sponsorships, ranging from beauty brands to national airlines. But the success has not come without price, and Mustehsan had to deal with malicious online trolling.
“Suddenly every person with a social media account had an opinion about me, I had panic attacks, I was depressed and left my room for days no longer.”
Mustehsan worked on these issues by exchanging her experiences in social media, combating cyber bullying and consistently supporting young female followers who came to her advice.
Recently, two of their videos with the Hashtag #depressionisreal had almost a quartermillion views on Instagram and opened a space for open discussions on mental health.
Momina Mustehsan is one of Pakistan’s major social media influencers, as her contributions are estimated at about 20 million people a month.
Other female celebrities, such as the Hocane sisters (Urwa and Mawra), both of whom are successful actors, have bigger consequences, but are more of fashion.
When Mustehsan speaks, girls who idolize them listen to them because they choose serious themes that resonate with them. It encourages young women to believe in their own beauty without manipulating mobile filter apps, and is known to be trolling the rights of women to move freely in public spaces with sharp repartees.
However, she has annoyed some Pakistani feminists by criticizing the murdered provocateur and Internet sensation Qandeel Baloch for using her body to gain media attention.
If there were a thousand-year revision of the Spice Girls, the Pakistani superstar could be cast into the role of Sporty Spice.
At the age of 12, when she lived in the conservative city of Quetta, she took up the show jumping and continued to play tennis although her parents were worried about tanning in the Pakistani sun to find themselves as a husband.
As an “Empowerment Champion” for the Islamabad United (ISLU) cricket team in the Pakistan Super League, Mustehsan regularly speaks about the lack of gender parity in sport.
It has also been used for the recovery of public spaces by women.
“When you go to jog, you feel threatened, because all these men follow you, cries and whistles for you,” she says.
“This is my city as much as any man,” she says of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. “But I feel that I can not jog alone or settle for a tea in a Dhaba (street cafe).” Pakistan is my home, I do not want to feel bothered in my own home.
Four women playing for the Pakistani national team also play for ISLU. Mustehsan teaches them to sing, and they reply with cricket hours.
“There were other teams that wanted me to cooperate with them, especially Afreen Afreen because I was that face,” she says. But while she could earn more with another team, she says she chose ISLU because she is aiming to make girls a sport, and she belongs to a woman, Amna Naqvi.
“If you see more women in sport, you normalize that. They say this is the field of a woman, and women can be decision-makers,” she says of Mrs Naqvi.
The team owner calls Momina “an inspiration for the women of Pakistan”.
Momina and the team will hold cricket matches in girls’ schools in Islamabad and Lahore in November, where girls are not encouraged to do sports.
“Women have been the subject of discrimination in sport around the world, and the reason why we do not have Serena Williams is that we do not really have the same facilities and coaching for women we do for men,” she says.
“Athletes must have visibility, so that younger girls can follow role models.”