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Swing restaurantIt’s perhaps the most heartbreaking scene in Gangubai Kathiawadi. Resigned to her fate, the film’s protagonist gives in to her captor’s demands. She puts on makeup and a choli, and takes her place outside the brothel. Stiff with grief and fear, she allows another girl to adjust her pose: leaning against the building’s facade, one foot up on the wall behind her, an arm raised over her head while the other stretches out towards potential customers, hand beckoning them in. In Gangubai’s eyes we see despair and resignation.

Even if you don’t like the movie, it’s hard to not feel the pain in this scene. It’s her lowest point and drives home the horror of forced prostitution. However, at Karachi-based restaurant Swing, someone in the marketing department watched this scene and saw an idea for a “humorous” advertisement. Last week, Swing released a digital advertisement on their social media featuring this particular scene. Edited onto a building in the scene’s street was a glaring pink billboard for their ‘Men’s Monday’ discount. An accompanying caption read, “Aja na Raja – what are you waiting for? Swings is calling out all the Rajas out there.”

It is, in one word, disgusting. The film makes it clear that Gangubai has been forced into this profession by manipulation and violence. In this scene, the way back to her old life has been cut off and the only way forward is to give in to her situation. This is a lived reality for the thousands of people who are forced into prostitution worldwide every year. Using this scene to advertise a ‘Men’s Monday’ is far from clever; it is insensitive to the victims of human trafficking and attempts to make light of their trauma.

Netizens were quick to pick up on this fact. Swing’s social media was flooded with comments criticizing their marketing. Far from amending the situation, Swing’s response has only compounded the original offense. A few hours after posting the advertisement, the restaurant uploaded a post that attempted to gaslight those who had taken offense.

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Netizens were not happy about Swing’s Gangubai advertising

In a newspaper graphic, over a still of Gangubai from the scene, a headline said, “Aray log, itna dil be kyun leliya.” Under the photograph, text read, “Movie kare tou aag, restaurant kare tou paap? #kyayehkhullatazaadnahin”. The implication being that people were overreacting while impinging on the restaurant’s freedom of speech. Furthermore, the post accused us of being hypocritical for bashing the restaurant for using a scene that was considered acceptable in the movie. A condescending caption stated, “The movie and this post is based on a concept.” Drawing parallels between the film and their advertisement was, at best, illogical because the film situated the scene within a larger context that was totally lost in the ad.

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In the aftermath of the advertisement, Swing released a statement attempting to gaslight those who took offense

Predictably, Swing’s response did not fly well with audiences. But the final blow was yet to be delivered. Just a day later, the restaurant uploaded a picture of Raziabai who was a trans character in Gangubai Kathiawadi. Text on the photograph read, “Raziabai ko bhool gaye kia?” and was accompanied by a caption that promised us that our critique would soon turn to applause. Another picture of Raziabai was uploaded the next day reading, “Movie mein tou haar gayi lekin ab jeet jaungi”. The caption seemed to imply that there was more to this campaign that would be revealed very soon. This attempt to create mystery resulted in annoyance more than intrigue. When Swing did unveil the rest of this so-called campaign, we wished they’d just kept the big secret to themselves.

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Swing followed their Gangubai advertising with posts featuring trans character Raziabai

Yesterday, Swing uploaded a photograph on their Facebook with members of the Gender Interactive Alliance (GIA). GIA is a community outreach organization that works to secure rights for Pakistan’s trans khawajasira community. The photograph showed members of Swing’s management with Bindiya Rana, the president of GIA. An accompanying caption implied that the earlier advertisement was part of a bigger campaign that aimed to highlight differing societal attitudes towards transgender people and cis women.

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Swing’s statement making the campaign out to be a social outreach intitiative

According to Swing, the advertisement featuring Gangubai was meant to grab our attention and redirect it towards the khwajasira community. They claimed that they’d been working with GIA “behind the scenes”, having reached a deal with them to hire khwajasira staff for the restaurant. In very convoluted terms, Swing implied that our attitude towards seeing Gangubai in their advertisement was more pronounced than seeing Raziabai in their posts. “No boycott movement for using a transgender as a marketing prop?” asked Swing. This was not only untrue — their use of Raziabai was as vocally criticized as their earlier advertisement — but also rather ironic. Considering their big justification was also doing exactly that: using the trans community as a prop.

Swing’s statement is problematic in more than one way. But, most of all, it’s a lie. Shahzadi Rai, Violence Case Manager at GIA, told Something Haute that swing had in fact approached the organization in the after math of their advertisement. Their arrangement with GIA was not a part of a larger campaign which included the Gangubai advertisement but rather a failed attempt to control the damage by painting it as humanitarian.

“GIA is the kind of institution where we welcome anyway who wants to work with us,” says Shahzadi. However, at their first meeting with Swing, Shahzadi recognized them as being the restaurant that had made this PR debacle. She, along with some of her colleagues, questioned them about it but the restaurant owners made excuses for themselves and invited GIA members to dinner. Unconvinced, Shahzadi chose to sit out the dinner.


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A post shared by Shahzadi Rai (@shahzadi_rai)

The khwajasira community in Pakistan is vulnerable to poverty and exploitation. They are rarely, if ever, given equal employment opportunities. When they are forced to turn to begging or sex work to make ends meet, they are demonized for it. GIA’s top priority is to work towards the interests of their community. Thus, their leaders decided to go ahead with the deal regardless of Swing’s ailing reputation. The arrangement was just an MOU that Swing would employ transgender people who were recommended by GIA. The scope of the arrangement was overstated by Swing’s, however: the so called initiative makes space for only two trans employees at their restaurant. Shahzadi states categorically that in no way did GIA’s arrangement with Swing include this marketing campaign.

Members of the khwajasira community have been quick to call out Swing for using them to white wash their campaign Trans activist Hina Baloch commented, “This is a pathetic cover up. You know that Ma Bindiya will never refuse you because she will prioritize the welfare of the khwajasira community.” Activist and artist Layla Afsar also called Swing out for othering the trans community with the language they’ve used in their statement.

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Artist Layla Asfar calling out the restaurant in the comments section

Earlier today, GIA released a statement categorically denying any involvement in the campaign. “We were not intimated before the signing of the MoU of any long-term collaborative strategy,” said GIA.

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Gender Interactive Alliance issued a statement distancing themselves from Swing’s controversial marketing campaign

While Swing has been unavailable for comment, the restaurant did issue an apology a few hours after GIA’s statement. In a statement on their social media, Swing “genuinely apologized” and acknowledged “that our campaign style and approach was wrong”. However, they continued to insist that their “intentions were pure” and that this was a case of them not being able to communicate their “message” properly.

The fact that Swing’s apology comes after repeatedly trying to deny responsibility – and only after their half-baked cover up also drew ire – makes it difficult to not doubt the sincerity of their apology. The fact that they preferred to deceive and tokenize the trans community over apologizing sooner also does not reflect well on Swing. Instead of burrowing deeper into their own graves, if the brand had only apologized when they were first called out, their reputation could have been salvaged. Within a span of one week, the restaurant has managed to display insensitivity towards both victims of forced prostitution and the khwajasira community. Needless to say, this writer will not be giving Swing business anytime soon, if ever.




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