Photo by Faisal Farooqui

“Look for the woman in the dress. If there is no woman, there is no dress.” - Coco Chanel

Glancing through a photo album recently, I was struck by a picture showing a group of women. One was dressed in an elegant sari, another in a short top and smart trousers, the third in a neat shalwar kameez complete with chiffon duppatta and the fourth in jeans and an open button-down shirt over a baggy T-shirt. The photograph dated back to the early ’70s when a woman’s choice of dress expressed her taste, her personality and her individuality rather than just her choice of a designer brand. If it had been taken today they would, undoubtedly, all have been wearing ankle-skimming shirts and tights.

Before we entered the Age of the Clones, there was a time when a woman would flaunt bellbottoms one day and a chooridar the next. When a girl in a tight sleeveless shirt could travel in a bus along with a girl in an old-fashioned burqa (the one with the gauzy veil instead of the current Ninja look) and short tops were as acceptable as flowing maxis.

It was a time of diversity, experimentation and tolerance.

Well, tolerance went out the window one bleak day in July ’77 but women retained their sense of individualism; instead of buying a packet of fabric and replicating the given picture one would buy lawn print and design it according to one’s own tastes so even the same print could result in two completely different looks. Hairstyles varied from permed bobs, the popular but short-lived Diana cut (in honour of the late princess) to simple buns and braids and people expressed their religious convictions through their actions rather than their headgear.

So what happened to the women who defied a military dictator and found ways to avoid the mandatory chaddar; how and when did they give in to the dictates of a society that judges them by what they wear — or don’t? When did choice of clothes become a political/social/religious statement rather than just an expression of one’s tastes and personality?

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Cast your mind back to the immensely popular soap aired last year — the aptly titled ‘Hum-suffer.’ The good wife is always attired in flowing shirts, chooridar and duppatta — an epitome of Eastern femininity with all its inbuilt connotations of innocence, purity and, in this case, lack of any free will or gumption. The vamp favours Western wear and the evil mom-in-law flaunts sleeveless shirts with no duppatta. There you have it; a quick shorthand to tell the good woman from the bad.

And it’s not just the local plays; in soaps from across the border it’s the woman wearing the halter neck blouse you have to watch out for.

Judging people by their clothes is a natural impulse — after all, a person’s dress is the first thing you see about them — but only TV plays would assume that a woman’s wardrobe is an accurate predictor to whether she is a good wife or a home-breaker. And of course, it’s only a woman’s sartorial choices that are stereotyped; no one looks at a man and thinks, ‘hmm…his necktie’s too bright he must be a philanderer’; or, ‘such sober colours, he must be a wife beater…’ or even, ‘a safari suit, looks like a tight-fisted kanjoos.’ No, a man is a man, whatever he wears; a woman is either a ‘designer lawn aunty’, ‘a hijabi’ or (horror) a ‘mod-scod’ type.

That women are, and will be judged by their apparel, at least in our society, is a fact we have to live with, perhaps for another millennium or more. But we can change the playing field, mess with the rules and confuse the issue so that one will have a hard time pigeon-holing us on the basis of our dress alone. So why not bring back the shalwars and the short kameez; the sari and the maxi, the old-fashioned burqa and the bell-bottom? Let’s mix and match, defy the fashion police and, when we open the wardrobe every morning, let’s ask — who do I want to be today?

 


shagufta_naaz
Shagufta Naaz is a Dawn staffer

 

 


The following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Shagufta Naaz is a Dawn staffer

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Comments (18)

Pak Super Power 2030
April 5, 2013 10:40 am
A very interesting article, something I thought about for a long time but couldn't express it with clarity. Keep writing Shagufta.
raika45
April 5, 2013 1:02 pm
The last part of your column will be having the taliban and the ultra mullahs throwing fits of outrage.Good job lady.Salute to you.It is time you women stood to your rights to dress as you like.
essohkay
April 5, 2013 1:05 pm
individualism, taste, style, creativity can be expressed by one's attire - at home, with girl friends, and family. Why the need to seek recognition, appreciation, shock, approval, respect or for that matter any reaction from strangers, passersby or mere acquaintances. i cover my clothes with an abaya/ plain outer garment and am free from being judged/ misjudged.
Ghazal
April 5, 2013 1:16 pm
Perhaps if we thought less of what to choose from our wardrobe and more about what it is that we can do each day to make the world a better place there would be more Badam Zari's and Nusrat Begums. I cant understand this fixation with clothes that Pakistani women have when the world around us is falling apart.
Azmul
April 5, 2013 2:41 pm
Very interesting article. For a woman in our society, the requirements for qualifying as pious are too many and no matter how much a woman tries, she'll always find herself struggling to meet the society's demands of piety. It will be far better if women just dress they way they want. But then who is going to save them from the conservative and narrow minded people? Choice is too hard to make specially in a country which unfortunately was made on the name of religion.
Nuzhat
April 5, 2013 3:37 pm
Vert well written and interesting article. Totally agree with you about the TV dramas ( started watching Hum-suffer and could not bear the passive limp Khirad, so gave up). I think the most dehumanizing dress is the abaya/hijab. it completely erases any individuality one may have.
Gunjan
April 5, 2013 5:05 pm
Oh, you are still being judged. Just so you know.
Zobia
April 5, 2013 5:57 pm
Clothes have always been a political statement. Personally, I hate how the "cool" teenagers in Karachi wear Western clothes. First of all, the text on their shirts is always complete gibberish. Second of all, I hate that my fellow young people are wearing constant reminders of Imperialism. British and American. And Ghazal is right. EVERYONE focuses far too much on muslim women's clothes. Western feminists make everything into a Hijab hating fest and now we're getting concerned about the political implications of our shalwar kameez. Can we please talk more about improving education? Healthcare? Are we going to talk about long terms plans to improve the economy? No. Let's talk about clothes instead. Also, no offense, but Bellbottoms should stay in the 70s.
abc
April 5, 2013 7:56 pm
It is something to be proud about that Pakistanis have finally relised its Islamic roots and denounced western and hindu Indian influences in everyday life.
Bakul
April 6, 2013 12:54 am
You can still be judged while being covered under Abaya. Why do you have to cover yourself for no fault of yours, when people around you have wrong habit of judging others?
Hangover
April 6, 2013 5:15 am
The prostitute understands that she will be judged upon her clothes therefore wears enticing and luring clothes. If people weren't to judge her, she would be out of business soon.
aaa
April 6, 2013 10:06 am
Unlike many other countries pakistan still holds its colourful diversity. Burqa, hijab, chaddar and the ones who try not to use all these go side by side. There is no pakistani nomatter how she dresses herself who does not have a friend or close acquiantance who dresses the opposite. This is totally missing in many other cultures.
Bhaiyaji
April 6, 2013 3:51 pm
It is amazing that in the west there are countries that have banned specific garments and yet the liberals among us never seem to have guts to say anything about it yet they feel compelled to ask for individual choices in Pakistan. Do we want a country where some garments are banned? that is the question that should be asked? I would rather social pressure dictates what anyone (man or a woman) can wear than a law. Pakistan is a truly free country unlike some western countries.....
SoldierBazari
April 6, 2013 5:28 pm
'who do I want to be today?' Be yourself, young lady, be yourself.
Gunjan
April 6, 2013 9:50 pm
Please denounce internet, computers, having a free opinion too. These all bear roots in western thought.
beg
April 6, 2013 10:00 pm
dress code in public and in private are different and this is how they are practiced even in very liberal societies such as UK where public dress code for queen,parliamentarians and executives is alot different than dresses worn by actors and even actors,models wear different clothes at home and on cat walk so the point is that true that dress reflect personal taste and personality yet there are bars put on dress code for public displayeven in most liberal societies.hence islam says you can wear whatever you want in your private life,parties and homes but when you come in general public it has to covered as now we know (scientific research shows) there is a strong association between body display and social problems and this is because human physiology and anatomy and hormonal influences affect human behaviour (socially acceptable and unacceptable),this is pure scientificly ,fact based that nudity in any form disturb hormonal flux in human body that can result in unruly,agitated and animalistic behaviour therefore there are laws all over the world in this regard.It is so unfare to provoke hormones in public and allow major social disturbances and criminal acts and the consequences span over generations that is why west is trying to cope with illegitimate children and single moms are a huge problem and all this start with what appears to be an innocent desire of displaying nudity in public ,media and producing a mentality which is against nature and scientic reality
TL
April 6, 2013 11:12 pm
Totally agree with you.
Sampath
April 7, 2013 6:15 am
I take a walk every day in a park with water body. Mornings in Bangalore are cool. I find couple coming for walk one totally covered by Hijab. She cant have even a small possibility of having fresh air to breathe . She is forced to breathe her own breath where as the male counterpart enjoys. I pity the system
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