Pakgaystani is a bisexual, Sh’ia, and Canadian Illustrator who has her followers wrapped around her finger. Her art is an oasis in cyberspace, where LGBTQ+ Muslim representation is either having white folks cry “Muslims are homophobic and stone gays,” or wallah bros trolling the comment section with “Haraam,” thus completely dismissing Muslims who exist within the community who are forced to listen to these homophobic, Eurocentric, and racist views.
MuslimGirl.com sits down with Arzu Haider to educate our readers on why her art matters:
MUSLIM GIRL: Describe your art style for us.
ARZU HAIDER, a.k.a. PAKGAYSTANI: My art is something of a mix of semi-realism and neo-traditional tattoo styles, with a lil’ bit of inspiration from Renaissance art, tarot cards, astrology, fantasy, and whatever strikes my fancy at the moment. I love the clean lines, solid colours, and the bold finish of neo-traditionalism; but semi-realist art portrays humans in a way that is creative, cartoony, aesthetically-pleasing, yet also relatable and something one could easily “see” themselves in.
I tend to dabble in themes of a traditional sense of piety meeting contemporary markers of identity, which really drew my attention to Renaissance art and its depiction of women. It was apparent to me that Renaissance women were portrayed as symbols of purity.
There was this sort of detached, inexpressive, whimsical, pure, and holy vibe that I felt connected with what Muslim women are expected to embody. The notion that Muslim women are expected to be somewhat demure, chaste, pious, devoted to God and her family before herself, a representative of her parents and sisters, and the “flagbearer of Islam,” especially if you wear a hijab. Although I wouldn’t consider my art a direct narrative on crushing ideas of purity, I certainly enjoy incorporating symbols such as gestures of prayer along with markers of identity that express the reality of the individuality of women. And it looks pretty darn cool!
How does your Muslimah identity influence your pieces?
My identity as a Muslim woman is literally the backdrop to all my creations. Prior to the pieces that I draw now, I dabbled in art, mostly creating fan content for movies and games that I loved. My art became more personal to me when I began seriously acknowledging my identity as a queer Muslim. Although I had already known I was not straight, I hadn’t fully explored my queerness, or come to terms with being queer and Muslim at the same time. Drawing soon became an outlet in which I could express the side of me that loves women.
I think what got me about this particular piece I drew of two hijabi women embracing each other and gazing at one another so lovingly, is that I didn’t draw it as a big “fuck you” to homophobes; I drew it for me, for everyone else like me who identified with drawings like these and hoped to see more. It made me think about how there was still so much work to do with representing Muslim women and femmes in art, without Muslim women being seen solely as a political statement.
Yes, I agree and acknowledge that our identities will always be politicized, but I also believe that we are so much more. Simultaneously, there are also identities that Muslim women associate themselves with that even fellow Muslims respond to with some form of hostility, such as being LGBTQ+. Not only are Muslim women and femmes dealing with the pressures of the “outside” world, but sometimes the Muslim community isn’t always a safe haven either. From then, it became my goal to put Muslim women and femmes at the center of creativity and imagination, to not depict only the Muslimness in us, but to touch on the many facets of our identities that make us all so unique, vibrant, endlessly diverse, and magnificently wonderful.
So, while the Muslim identity will surely be a constant in all my art, it is merely the canvas. I am committed to pouring all the different dimensions of myself—the part of me that loves tattoos and body modification, high fantasy, animals, music, queerness—and the plethora of identifiers that are in other women, into my art pieces, to explore the intersectional and creative universe of Muslim women and femmes that deserves recognition.
What advice do you have for Muslim artists to hone your craft?
Oh gosh, I feel hardly qualified to be the one giving out advice, but I suppose I may have a few things to share from my art journey! Two cliche quotes that you’re likely to find on a floral notebook cover in pretty cursive #aesthetique font at Chapters, or whatever your local bookstore is: “Keep Calm and Carry On”, and “This Too Shall Pass”. From now on, those are your mantras! While you evolve as an artist, and while your art evolves in content in skill, you will face bumps on the road. You may become frustrated with your craft, things might not be turning out the way you want them to, people might downplay how important your art is, you could hit a major inspirational and motivational slump, or maybe you’re wondering what the point is in trying anymore.
Every artist goes through this, and when it hits us, it feels like the end of the dang world. Take it from someone who’s suffered and beat too many art blocks that have lasted far too long: there is a light at the end of the tunnel. As tough as it might be, don’t lose your bearings. Create as much as you can, challenge yourself, take healthy breaks to rejuvenate yourself, but know that your potential is there and it’s waiting for you to tap right into it and go hard.
To all Muslim artists, whether you are visual artists, photographers, MUA’s, musicians, authors, poets, filmmakers, dancers, or singers: Your art matters.Your perspective matters. Your representation matters. You matter. Keep practicing, don’t look at other artists’ skill as a lack of your own, strive to achieve your artistic goals, however they may evolve, remember everyone goes through an Anime phase. And if yours isn’t a phase, that’s fine too! I love you, KEEP MAKING ART!!!
Why do you think art can help break false narratives?
If art can make false narratives, it can also break them. Art is another way of amplifying or communicating messages and voices that can shed light on issues in a way that displays and combats misconceptions, as well as creates dialogue. With art, I believe, must come voices willing to explain, clarify, and confront responses that may support or reaffirm false narratives.
I don’t think art can break false narratives on its own, and must be accompanied with proactive voices and action, but it surely is a remarkable tool that shouldn’t be overlooked or disregarded in movements for social change.
Can you show your progress as an artist from 5 years ago versus now?
R.I.P. I have only one drawing from 5 years ago on my old laptop. I’m sure my younger sister has some of my ancient sketches from my adolescent Anime phase, including attempts at drawing up Mangas—I had a “Yu-Gi-Oh!” one that I worked on for so long—that will never see the light of day again so long as I live. I feel like style-wise, my art has only incrementally changed, but my anatomical proportions have improved infinitely. I’m much closer to my ideal aesthetic than I was years ago, so I’m happy about that! Slowly, but surely!
Give us 5 facts about yourself.
1. I was obsessed with Sailor Moon as a kid. Had her costume, recorded episodes on VHS everyday, knew the theme song through and through, wanted to marry Tuxedo Mask, AND I had a ton of her wands. My favourite Sailor Moon merch was a doll that was gifted to me by a boy I was close friends with on my 5th birthday (I think). I loved it so much that I cried and refused to accept gifts from anyone else. That boy is now my husband.
2. I literally never talk about the Dark Ages of my adolescence, but from Grades 6 to 8, I was obsessed with scene kids like Kiki Kannibal, Audrey Kitching, and Matt Lush. Through a questionable and quirky wardrobe, I became a self proclaimed scene hijabi. I deleted all my pictures from then, but I still live with the memories of my black and white, badly-angled selfies plastered with Fall Out Boy quotes that were a prime choice for my latest Facebook profile pics. Thanks for the memories, even if they weren’t so great.
3. I’m downright in love with Buzzfeed’s “Ladylike” series, and I watch/listen to it on YouTube while I do my makeup everyday.
4. I have a shit-ton of clothes, yet all I ever wear are my husbands collared shirts and knit sweaters—a great perk of marriage, my friends.
5. In Grade 7, I sang “Complicated” by Avril Lavigne for my school’s talent show. In grade 8, I sang a song from an Anime called “Mermaid Melody” that my friends and I were obsessed with. The song was in Japanese, and I copied the choreography step-by-step from the show, which probably didn’t look as cool as I thought it did. I even envisioned all the sparkles and bubble effects around me and everything.
If you’ve enjoyed and learned from this profile, then go give @pakgaystani a follow on Instagram and show her your support. If you are an artist yourself that wishes to contribute, please reach us via Instagram.