It has been half a century but I can still vividly recall watching Ilahi Pawli in awe, as he worked on his handloom, weaving cotton cloth, thread by thread. On sunny winter days, he would set up his loom in the open ground outside our house, which gave me a chance to enjoy the spectacle in my pre-school days. In the rural areas, weavers (called pawli locally) engaged in this complex craft — perhaps the only one that touched the boundary of industrial work — and produced a commodity that could be ranked second only to food in importance.
Yet pawlis were placed on the lowest rung of the hierarchy among artisan castes in Punjab. They were brutally stereotyped and mocked as an utterly stupid group of people. Any villager could recount at least half a dozen jokes about them. It was a clever mechanism of social control to keep a highly accomplished caste in place — a caste that could potentially challenge the authority of the powerful landowning castes.
It was South Asian workers like Ilahi who, for centuries, produced the legendary Dhaka muslin, a fabric “deemed worthy of clothing statues of goddesses in ancient Greece, countless emperors from distant lands, and generations of local Mughal royalty,” according to Zaria Gorvett of BBC. “Made via an elaborate, 16-step process with a rare cotton that only grew along the banks of the holy Meghna river, the cloth was considered one of the great treasures of the age. It had a truly global patronage, stretching back thousands of years.”
While most South Asian societies relied on economic power and social customs to enforce dress restrictions, Europe went to the extent of enacting laws for this purpose. In the Middle Ages, sumptuary laws were enacted to guard social hierarchy. These laws made people›s visual representation standardised and regulated down to the smallest detail. The laws were finally removed from statute books in the second half of the 18th century.
When not enforced properly, clothing could be deceptive, almost an instrument of class subterfuge. Such an incident had happened in my small town, on the eve of Independence, that people remembered and laughed about for generations.
When the Hindus left our town, the local elders took control of their houses and decided that each property would be allotted to incoming Muslim migrants according to the status they had left behind. One large haveli was particularly marked for a family of distinction.
When it comes to retaining the age-old order of social hierarchy, our society reveals that sometimes clothes are indeed what make the men
Such a family soon arrived. The men wore silk shirts and starched cotton turbans that made them look superior to the local landowners. The women, too, wore excellent dresses. Plump and healthy, their bodies bore no signs of physical labour. They told stories of the fabulous wealth they had left behind in a princely state. The haveli was duly allotted to the family.
However, as generating income became a pressing problem for the family, it was soon discovered that they in fact belonged to the lowly caste of musicians —mirasis— who might have ended up in a single-room house, left behind by a low-status Hindu family, had they not been able to put up such a perfect show of wealth with the help of their clothes and verbal skills.
In the 1970s, the Jajmani system was in its death throes in Punjab, and perhaps in many other areas of Pakistan and South Asia as well. In the Jajmani system or Yajman, lower castes performed various functions for the upper castes throughout the year and received grain or other goods in return on an annual basis. After the Green Revolution in Pakistan, farmers were turning to cash crops and wanted money instead of artisanal services in exchange for their produce. They were linking up fast with cities where the finest clothes, shoes, utensils and other necessities were available.
Faced with property fragmentation, landowners were increasingly sending their children to schools in the cities to prepare them for the job market, and some were even shifting to urban centres. Artisans and other low-caste groups, on the other hand, were also finding new opportunities in trade and industrial work. With rising unemployment in rural areas due to mechanisation and a breakdown in socio-economic structures, they had also started migrating to cities to find employment opportunities.
As his business dwindled and Ilahi became weak and old, he started working at our house as a domestic servant, mainly doing small errands. On the eve of Eid, my mother gave him a new dress to wear. But she noticed that he was still wearing his old clothes weeks after Eid. When asked why he was not wearing his new clothes, Ilahi replied: “How can I wear those clothes, my mother,” — my mother was decades younger but infantalising social inferiors is again a mechanism of social control — he said. “If I adorn myself like that, I may look like my masters.”
Despite my mother’s insistence, Ilahi never wore the new clothes, at least not while working at our house.
The young generation of pawlis, like most young members of artisanal castes — except for outliers of course — are engaged in low-level jobs in rural areas as well as cities. Working at restaurants, as cooks and waiters, is a lucrative job opportunity that requires less labour and brings better income. Meanwhile, almost every cousin of mine who could not perform well in education has got a degree in law, and many of them are now practising lawyers. Some of my relatives have also joined the profession after retiring from government services. However, the struggle to keep the two disparate groups apart continues. It can be seen in the recent onslaught of lawyers on restaurant waiters for their audacity to dress like them.
As waiters put up a show of superiority with their fine dresses, Pakistani lawyers appear anxious. Their anxiety is rooted in culture rather than the law they vow to defend, or the human rights they claim to fight for. Like a South Asian caste, they have struggled hard in the last few decades to stake a claim to a higher order in society, often by subverting the law rather than adhering to it. The most visible sign of their distinction, the black suit, is under threat from a group of charlatans who are engaged in a low form of labour — serving people at dining tables.
Three bar councils, namely Punjab, Islamabad and Balochistan, have reached out to the executive to stop waiters from dressing like them. In a letter written to the Chief Secretary, the Punjab Bar Council’s vice-chairman has stated: “Nobody is allowed to wear the Uniform of Lawyers [sic] except the lawyers. If anybody is found in the uniform of lawyers at any place, marriage hall [sic], hotels, event hall [sic], I have clear directions to proceed under the relevant provision of Law [sic].”
Lawyers cannot be ignorant of the fact that the black suit is a popular formal dress for men all over the world, and waiters often dress better than their clients. It is hard to determine who is dressing like whom. Is it waiters dressing like lawyers or are lawyers dressing like waiters?
The august bodies of lawyers have not quoted the law that waiters are violating. In fact, the lawyers’ demand violates some basic rights guaranteed in the Constitution of Pakistan. But the lawyers are not deterred by the fact that the Lahore High Court dismissed their legal claim to the black suit back in 2015.
So far, Pakistan’s better-off classes have been able to guard themselves well from any subterfuge from the lower classes by denying avenues of upward mobility to lower castes and classes. It is hard to find a lawyer, civil servant or politician with a low-caste or lower class background.
But there is no fun in being served if the one serving you is better dressed than you are.
The writer holds a degree in social anthropology from the University of London and works in the field of social development. He tweets @zaighamkhan
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 2nd, 2021