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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

During a reception just before the start of this year’s cricket World Cup in England, the Pakistan cricket captain Sarfaraz Ahmed was seen wearing a traditional Pakistani dress, the kurta pajama, while meeting the Queen of England. 

Earlier, the Pakistan touring squad was also photographed wearing white shalwar kameez with the green Pakistan team blazer. These photos received a mixed reception by Pakistanis on social media. Some thought it was a proud moment, whereas others dismissed it as being unnecessarily exhibitionistic. 

There were also those who claimed that this was the first time the Pakistan cricket team had worn the ‘national dress’ abroad. Not quite. When the Pakistan team embarked on its first-ever Test tour in 1952 to India, most players were photographed wearing the sherwani during a reception in New Delhi. However, a few, including skipper A.H. Kardar, preferred wearing a tuxedo. 

When dress becomes an expression of your nationality and piety

But what really is the Pakistani national dress? Is it the sherwani or the shalwar kameez? The nationalist Pakistani historian I.H. Qureshi, in his 1957 book The Pakistan Way of Life, writes that it was the sherwani for men and for women it was the kameez with chooridar pajama. 

This indeed was the case till the late 1960s. The sherwani was worn often with a shalwar or a pajama, and a ‘Jinnah cap’. But it is also true that the majority of urban working-class folk and those from the rural areas largely wore shalwar-kameez. It was considered to be the common man’s dress.   

However, the shalwar kameez became widely popular when the chairman of the populist PPP, Z.A. Bhutto, began to wear it during his public rallies. He started to pair it with a ‘Mao cap’ after he became President of Pakistan in 1971, and then prime minister in 1973. 

In 1973, the shalwar kameez was declared the ‘awami libas’ (people’s dress). From the late 1970s onwards, the shalwar kameez began to be drummed up as a national dress in textbooks and on state media.

So from being the dress of the working classes and the rural people, Bhutto had turned it into a populist political statement. But from the early 1980s, it also began to be associated with Islam. 

According to Ali Banuazizi in State, Religion & Politics in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, this happened when the military dictatorship of Gen Zia (1977-1988) made it compulsory for government and state officials to wear shalwar kameez to work.

The move was explained as part of Zia’s ‘Islamisation’ process, but it was never explained just how this was in any way related to Islam. Some believe that the perception that the shalwar kameez was an Islamic dress was largely created when those Pakistanis who often wore Western-style clothes began to wear it to mosques during Friday prayers. 

In 1982, the Zia regime went to the extent of asking the state-owned TV channel, PTV, to always show good characters in TV plays wearing shalwar kameez. ‘Bad characters’ were typically shown wearing Western clothes.

The shalwar kameez actually predates Islam by hundreds of years. According to archaeologist and historian A.H. Dani, in 2007’s Pakistan Through the Ages, the dress probably originated during the largely Buddhist Kushan rule in the second century CE. It was a syncretic empire that had its origins in Central Asia and included large parts of what today is northern Pakistan. 

Dani writes that a dress with loose baggy trousers and a kameez-like shirt was introduced by the dynasty in this region and then adopted by the Pakhtun tribes of the areas which today are part of Pakistan. Various versions of this dress evolved and spread all over the subcontinent. Today, most Pakistanis wear it as an expression of national identity or simply because they grew up wearing it. 

But there are still some sections of society which regard it as an ‘Islamic dress’. And these are the same sections which, over the years, have modified it to accommodate elements they have adopted from items of Arab clothing, such as the hijab (veil), the thawb (robe), etc. These they brought back from their stay as expats in the oil-rich but conservative Arab countries, mostly in the last 25 years or so.

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 16th, 2019