By Ayesha Akram in Lahore
Model Mehreen: "It's hard for men to accept independent women"
Pakistan's fashion models are slowly managing to crawl on to international catwalks and into overseas magazines.
But hidden behind the kohl-rimmed eyes and the perfectly plastered smiles are women who are paying a heavy price for stepping into designer stilettos.
"My sister would never be allowed to model, not in a million years," says photographer Faisal Farooqui.
"If I even bring this topic up, my mother would probably not speak to me for days."
Mr Farooqui, who makes his living by photographing fashion shows, adds: "In our family, girls are expected to study and get married or at the most adopt a decent profession like teaching. Modelling isn't even an option for them."
He feels that the majority of Pakistanis remain conservative in their thinking and while they may have accepted the right of women to work and assert themselves, modelling and dancing are still considered unacceptable.
Amina Shafat, a young Pakistani model who is regularly seen gracing the cover of magazines, agrees with Faisal's interpretation.
"We remain a conservative society, for our religion imposes certain restrictions on us that continue to be respected by the vast majority of our people," she says.
"Modelling is still associated with women of loose character and no matter what limits you try to impose on yourself, you inevitably end up being slotted in the same category."
Amina knows quite a bit about setting limits, for she is probably the only supermodel in Pakistan who refuses catwalk assignments and does not wear sleeveless clothes for photo shoots or fashion shows.
"I set these limits in accordance with my family's wishes because I know they wouldn't like seeing me half-naked on a magazine cover," she says.
Although she has enjoyed great success and fame as a model, she is adamant that her younger sister should not follow in her footsteps.
Fashion model Nadia Malik has been working in this field for the past four years.
"It is generally believed that you are a model either because you need the money or because you come from a shady background, neither of which is true in my case," she says.
Modelling is a long way from being seen as an acceptable career
The only reason she chose the profession was because she thoroughly enjoyed her job.
"I love being a model and am lucky in the sense that my mother is extremely supportive. At times, my father does get embarrassed when my photographs are pointed out to him but he seems to be reconciled to this situation pretty well."
But despite support from family and friends, Nadia has faced the brunt of being a model in the form of unwanted phone calls and weird text messages.
Model-actress Mehreen Raheel has a similar story to tell.
"We live in a conservative society where it's hard for men to accept confident independent women working in offices much less strutting on a catwalk," she says.
But the situation has definitely improved.
Frieha Altaf is now a successful fashion choreographer and was one of the most popular models in the 1980s.
"At that time there were only a handful of models, and girls from good families didn't even dream of entering this profession. I was an exception and had to develop a snobbish 'stay-away-from-me' attitude to ward off unwanted attention," she says.
"But the harassment continued. It was a constant battle: first my boyfriend and then my in-laws had problems with my choice of profession. Eventually, I had to quit modelling to please others or to get some peace of mind."
Fashion editor Yahsir Saeed feels it is more a class issue.
"I don't think the upper classes have an issue with models anymore. In fact they think it is a matter of pride to have a model on their arms," he says.
"But the situation is very different for the middle and lower classes. They still belong to a conservative mind-set and I don't think they are going to change anytime soon."
Despite the supposed improvements, modelling is still a long way from becoming one of the acceptable career choices for young women. Many feel it may never achieve this status.
"My sisters won't be allowed to model and I wouldn't allow my wife to enter this profession," says one-time male fashion model, Shiraz.
"I don't feel modelling is a good choice for girls who come from decent backgrounds because of the kind of people involved in this field," he says.
"Almost all the models I know drink and smoke and that's not the kind of company I would like women from my family to keep or associate with."