It was her dream debut on Coke Studio that catapulted her to unprecedented levels of fame overnight and her first reaction to the recognition was not one of joy – as one would assume. Momina Mustehsan, the mathematician, engineer and musician found it particularly difficult to cope with the social media trolls that came as part of the package and they still don’t sit well with her. In a heartfelt interview, she talks to Instep about how she went from someone dodging the limelight to using social media to talk about her personal battles with depression.
For this interview, she spoke to us from Islamabad where she’s taking a break from the hustle and bustle of Lahore and goes to take a break when she’s in Pakistan. It is also where her recent documentary play, created in collaboration with the UN Women and the Embassy of Sweden, was staged. Titled ‘Seven’, it was a dramatic reading of stories of seven different women and all stories centered on women who’ve faced harassment, violence or death threats. “People question that they are old stories we are telling but the issue of violence against women is prevalent throughout the world,” begins Momina. “Seven portrays this because it brings a human element to their stories. All the stories are intertwined and they make you realize they are all connected even though the women are geographically isolated.”
Since her Coke Studio debut, the singer retains her massive following but her success still comes with a price in the form of online trolling. However, she still continues to address social issues and also came out with something as personal as depression on a very public forum. Speaking about her journey she shares, “Before ‘Afreen Afreen’, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it because my family wasn’t supportive. They were scared and didn’t want me to be in the public eye.”
Momina still went ahead with the song and the rest as we know was history. “Suddenly everyone on social media had an opinion about me. I used to have panic attacks and would cry myself to sleep. I became depressed and didn’t leave my room for days and nothing would help. My life was completely out of my control,” she recollects. Months later she came out with videos on Instagram with the hashtag #depressionisreal and spoke openly about her own struggles with it. How did she gather the courage to open herself up on the very platform that caused her tremendous distress early on in her career?
“I thought about how no one was there for me when I was going through depression and thought that it was only fair that I speak about it because nobody has it perfect. Everyone has troubles and that’s normal. If my voice is being heard, then why shouldn’t I talk about the things that matter? I just want to normalize depression because there’s so much stigma around it. If I say I believe in empowering women but shy away from using my own examples, it would be hypocritical,” she shares.
Momina’s experiences with social media still haven’t been plain sailing. Even though she managed to overcome her fears by taking the platform that caused her sleepless nights into her own hands and make it one where she could be the voice of reason for those who are going through depression, she still has many disparagers. In a recent series of tweets on Qandeel (Baloch) and Mahira (Khan), she upset a few Pakistani feminists because they claimed she was supporting one and not the other. Momina spoke about her definition of feminism: “its empowerment. I just don’t understand why one feminist fights with another on the basis of a small difference. We should sit down and talk about it because no one was born all-knowing.”
While Momina hasn’t released any singles nor done any concerts since Coke Studio barring one song called ‘Jee Liya’ as part of Cornetto Pop Rock 2, she’s heavily occupied with social work. “I campaigned against cyber-bullying with the ISPR, raised money with TCS and donated heavily at DIL, among other things.”
She excitedly shares she was also recently named 40 under 40 at her alumna matter SUNY Stony Brook, an accolade for those who’ve made an impact since graduating from the university. “I recently also got named BBC 100 most impactful woman in the globe and most people don’t know why. It’s because of the social work that I do.”
– Photos by Izzah Shaheen Malik