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SOS! Save Our Shalwars!

By Ghazala Akbar:

For the past few years, a silent revolution has been in progress in Pakistan of which our security agencies, political parties, the religious right, Ghairat Brigades, Difa- e- Pakistan Council are blissfully unaware. It is not an Indian – Zionist – Western inspired conspiracy. US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher has no hand in it.There are no hectoring articles written by Western think tanks. Scholars at the Jinnah Institute have not issued any erudite papers.The Human Rights Commission has failed to comment. Honourable Justices of the SC are otherwise engaged to take suo motu notice. Most surprising of all it has escaped the keen trend – spotting eye of NFP, the ever- vigilant cultural critic at Dawn Newspapers!

This quiet revolution represents a paradigm shift in our internal dynamics, a development that could seriously disrupt our national cohesion. In case you haven’t noticed, the centuries-old ‘Shalwar’, a stitched garment, one of the greatest Islamo – Persian contributions in the hitherto ‘seamless’ Indo – Aryan civilisation,  is fast disappearing from the sartorial scene. Its absence is a harbinger of an even more sinister development: the Pakistani woman is asserting herself. She is making a fashion and political statement, a unilateral declaration of Independence: henceforth women will be wearing the trousers!

This home – grown rebellion began surreptitiously (as rebellions often do) among the well-heeled fashionistas on the streets of Karachi nearly five years ago. It then spread rapidly to the major urban centres of Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi. The movement has now snowballed nationally and internationally, encompassing the working classes and the Pakistani Diaspora. Most alarmingly, an army of peroxide – blond Aunties, a pressure group with significant economic clout have climbed on the bandwagon, giving it the thumbs-up.

Initially confined to a tiny minority, it was a fad not expected to last the silly season, a trend that would vanish without trace. Or so the pundits predicted. They were wrong. Look around you, five years on, the penchant for pants persists among the women folk. Straight leg trousers, Wide-leg trousers, Memon Pyjamas, Capri Pants, Jersey Chooridars, Leggings and Tights are now the order of the day. The Shalwar has fallen from grace. It is relegated to secondary status, a poor relation to be disdainfully taken out and paraded on occasions or locations of no sartorial importance.

Is it possible that the Shalwar — like many of our revered institutions — is doomed for extinction? Is the garment heading in the same direction as the Railways and the Steel Mill? Or is it like Democracy in the era of Zia -ul – Haq merely ‘on hold’? Many Social Commentators opt for the latter view.

Their analysis and optimism is based on a similar historical occurrence that took place in  1966, the year  the French designer Pierre Cardin introduced a new uniform for PIA air- hostesses: the A line shift worn over straight pants. It was bold, daring, modern and innovative. It revolutionised Pakistani fashion. Even the celluloid trendsetters, the Indian film stars copied it. The Shalwar — then — as now — had seemed an endangered species but it lived to fight another day. Not unsurprisingly, politics intervened and came to its rescue.

Attire and politics in the sub-continent have always had a symbiotic relationship. Officers of the British Raj dined in dinner- jackets in sweltering humidity even in the jungles. This was a way of emphasising their ‘racial’ superiority over the natives. In a post- colonial world, many countries across Asia and Africa asserted their independence by throwing off colonial strait- jackets and re-claiming colourful national costumes.

The sartorial issue was particularly sensitive in Pakistan where religious nationalism and culture was the basis of the Two-nation theory, the country’s reason for its existence. Pakistani society was torn between identifying with West or South Asia. A ‘new’ people required a new look. But in a society of plural ethnicities with an East and West wing, which dress was it to be and from where? In the early days of Pakistan, Fatima Jinnah and Rana Liaquat Ali Khan valiantly donned the exotic Muslim ‘Gharara’ for official wear. However, old habits persisted. It could not dislodge the popularity of the aesthetically pleasing ‘Hindu’ Sari especially for ceremonial occasions.

The dilemma of a ‘national dress’ was also complicated because the Sari was the preferred mode of daywear for many migrants in the urban centres of Karachi and Lahore and — importantly — in the majority Eastern half of the country. Therefore, when Ayub Khan’s Government ill – advisedly embarked on a ‘ban the bindi’ campaign (and by implication the Sari that it often accompanied) it was considered an unacceptable attack on Bengali culture and sartorial independence.

The proposed ban became a sore point exacerbating the East’s economic grievances and sense of alienation. Thereafter, the Sari plus bindi combination metamorphosed into a defiant symbol of Bengali nationalism. Choice of attire accentuated the polarisation of East and West Pakistan. At times of heightened political tension and street agitation, Shalwar – Kameez wearers were often marked and targeted as representative of ethnic oppressors.

Following the loss of the Eastern Wing, the issue of clothing was used again to make a re-constructed identity. A new form of sartorial nationalism emerged in the remaining half of Pakistan. Underpinned by Bhutto’s populist policies, anti – colonial diatribes and lofty notions of Islamic Socialism, the ubiquitous Shalwar – Kameez was deemed politically – correct. It was democratic, egalitarian and classless, a sartorial manifestation of ‘Masawaat’ or equality.

As the Awami Suit became de rigueur for men, women responded to the ‘classless’ society by donning ethnic garb. Sindhi hand-blocked Ajrak and hand- woven Sussi shalwars became high fashion. Middle and upper class urban women of all ages also took to the Shalwar – Kameez — more so for the comfort level and practicality it provided in the workplace. Never mind that the leader had a weakness for bespoke Savile Row suits, or that the ‘leaderine’ had a preference for six-yards of chiffon and the elite continued to eat cake, at least the ‘Kapra ’ part of the PPP’s electoral promise (Food, Clothing, Shelter’) had been delivered!

Under General Zia’s stern Islamicization programmes, the Shalwar- Kameez was cut and re-fashioned yet again to fit ideological and religious dimensions. It was vigorously promoted as the ‘sole’ national dress of Pakistan for both sexes. The Sari (like the Minorities) was relegated to the margins, a fashion outcast. Short of an outright ban, it was downgraded as alien and un – Islamic.

In the face of such official hostility, the Sari rapidly faded from the fashion scene much to the chagrin of its adherents in urban centres. Many of the older generation continued to wear it. They would not be seen dead in anything else. Curiously, it survived as the uniform for female Doctors in the Army Medical Corps. The Good General obviously knew his limits! (Happily, the sari is now making a revival.)

With Benazir Bhutto’s accession and official endorsement, the Shalwar-kameez became upwardly mobile. It graced the Prime Minister’s house, the National Assembly and the catwalks. Not just stylishly chic and politically correct, it was also big business. Ready -to- wear boutiques mushroomed all over Pakistan. By the late 90’s its transformation was complete. You could dress it down. You could dress it up. The humble Shalwar – Kameez was acceptable everywhere.

As Pakistanis increasingly travelled westwards or towards the Gulf Arab states, the elegant three-piece ensemble set them apart from fellow South Asians. Their dress was not Indian, Western or even Arab. It was Pakistani. For better or for worse, it also bracketed them with the gun-toting Shalwar-clad Afghan Mujahedeen romanticized by Reagan, Thatcher and the Western media. (Agent 007 James Bond sported a shalwar-kameez to take on the might of the Soviets in ‘The Living Daylights.’)

While the misogynist General’s policies’ of cultural and religious fascism were generally disastrous for Pakistan, his construct of a single national dress is perhaps the only achievement that makes logical sense. Consider the following: the Shalwar is common to all four provinces of Pakistan. It cuts across the urban and rural divide. It promotes gender equality. It is energy – efficient requiring less ironing and electricity than a six- yard Sari. It creates multiple jobs for designers, tailors, dyers etc. It is adaptable to all weather conditions.

Most importantly, it has quietly contributed to Sub – continental unity in ways Zia could not envisage: a common sartorial identity for South Asian women. Over the past decade or so, the Shalwar- Kameez with regional modifications has evolved as a popular dress of choice of the urbane modern South – Asian woman whether she is of Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi or Nepali origin.

Writing in HIMAL SOUTHASIAN, Rita Manchandra aptly describes this phenomenon: Thought to be ‘Muslim’ by some but originating in the land of the five rivers –Punjab, East and West – the Shalwar Kameez has nearly completed its conquest of the South Asian clothesline. What politicians, diplomats and peace activists have not been able to do, this piece of stitched cloth has. This is not a victory of cultural superiority, or religion; it is a victory of practicality and common sense.

For all the above reasons the disappearance of the Shalwar in its ‘original’ form is a matter that needs to be addressed immediately. The Shalwar cannot become a fashion dinosaur. It must return to its prime position of centrality in the wardrobes of Pakistan. Not just our own cultural heritage is at stake. The spread of the Shalwar – kameez is vital to the continuing evolution of a South Asian identity, of breaking barriers, marginalising differences,   emphasising the commonalities and living in peaceful co-existence.

This issue is too important to be left at the whim of dithering designers, fickle fashionistas and bleach – blond Begums. It is of utmost national significance. There is an urgent need for action. Nothing short of an immediate counter-revolution will suffice. Like the MRD of old, the masses must be mobilised once again for MRS: Movement for the Restoration of the Shalwar. Just a simple one – point agenda and mantra:  SOS: Save our Shalwars!


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31 Responses to "SOS! Save Our Shalwars!"

  1. Naveed Javed Pakistan Google Chrome Windows says:

    A Good Read- Loved it!

  2. AKB Pakistan Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    there is a difference between fad and fashion.
    trousers etc are also a variation of pajamas which have formed a part of indo-pak culture since ages.

    It was only in Afghanistan during the reign of King Zahir Shah that women were not allowed to wear shalwars (and to wear skirts only) by force of regal edict.

    Women should feel happy over losing their shalwars to trousers, jeans or even skirts. This is exactly what the liberals want to happen so let it be.

  3. naseem United Kingdom Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    Nothing to beat the shalwar.!! I will never give it up. Very amusing piece.!

  4. Rafiq Mian Saudi Arabia Internet Explorer Windows says:

    OMG: How shallow a thought process — the writer is worried of all things about Shalwar — of all as a whole that this nation is naked of. When I was growing up — my father would time and again call upon an old adage — “when wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost and when character is lost, everything is lost”. That should be our worry.

    Our nation today does not need Shalwar for return to their rescinded glory. Shalwar, kameez, beard, hijab and burqa cladded characterless individuals are far more despicable than a naked person with character. Today our brethren from top all the way down are naked when it comes to character and integrity. Our PM would much rather do away with 33% of our Shalwar clad populace.

    Like they say, let us start putting our money where our mouth is – and in serious earnest.

    Today, I seriously admire two Muslim countries; Turkey and Malaysia. Go to Malaysia, you would love it. They have mixture of hijab, skirts, pants and the local bell type — nobody gives too hoots about what the other guy wears or what his ethnic makeup is. Look at their literacy rate and fiscal upswing. Turkey is another example — skirts and all – literate and on monumental fiscal upswing.

    In my country — clean shaven as I am, I feel unsafe for my life. I will shudder, if I should wear shorts that I love and I wear them even in Saudi Arabia.

  5. Fingolfin India Google Chrome Windows says:

    Rafique Mian

    for the life of me i cannot understand how you could possibly miss it, but this article is a satire.

  6. Fingolfin India Google Chrome Windows says:

    clears so many misconceptions about the Pakistani civil society. the stereotype perpetuated in India is of Pakistan full of Salwar’s ( except Karachi). who would have imagined that the Sari was ever worn in Pakistan and that it is now making a comeback?! that it is, is a very good sign. it will also increase the similarities and help better ties. very refreshing article.

  7. Kamath Canada Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    What is ” Indo-Aryan Civillization’ yar?

  8. Irfan United States Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Another great piece by Ghazala. Loved it. Rafiq Mian you need it read it in the spirit in which it is written.

  9. Ayesha Islam Pakistan Google Chrome Windows says:

    This satircal piece–albeit long–brought memories of politicised fashions. The variations in the fashion field have kept up with the varied dispensations in the political field. The gharara embodied the ‘wide’ spread of the ambitions of certain Pakistani women, just as Islamic Socialism later embodied the out reach of ambitions of certain politicos

  10. more important than saving the shell-wars is to save what is reposed inside the magical shalwars, or shallos as our pseudo avantgarde paraphernalia used to swansong a few years ago.
    some shalwars are shallow; others have the hallow (albeit surrogated) brains imported from U$$$$A $$$$toered inside the shell-ware.

    Sari gull iss nucktey which muckdee aye …. as my distant relative Baba Bulley Shah noted two centuries ago.

    As the outraged/mutilated Nation (and its dignity) is dynamically drowning, being systematically wasted/drained down the gutter by our rulers, footas and their nouveau-riche chamchas , the big debate has begun: Que Sari Sari replacing Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Shall Be, as Ava Gardener an nounced in Bhowani Junction Jii).

    Shalwar and Sari should learn to coexist peacefully and graciously poignantly.

    I cry for my Motherland and that vets my genes!! HARVard should be proud that I taught them about Equal Oppotunity.


    My fan, Syyed Hamdani would be pleased to know that a fortnight ago, aftrer 9 years the LHC DB (Justice MKMK) vacated ther Stay Order that was illegally obtained by the Registrar LHC after affixation of Rs 3 Revenue Stamps on each page was declared illicit/illegal/nonsensical (2004).

    Today the Advocate General was a No Show before the DB (in re RA 49/2004, The Registrar LHC versus Geoffrey and Khitran after loosing my Writ … a jehad of 25 years now culminates). Next date is 23rd May.

    Incidentally, more than flimsy/meaningful (ugly looking mementos) cultural awards to Shabnam Jii, we should rise to the occasion and bravely face the music and prosecute and post NNJP confione to jail with Hard Labour for the rest of hius life the Bsndial Lafungaw who gang raped her in her Country before her busband AND children and now has become a showbiz hajji and successful bussing magnate. LUCK HIM!!

    We should learn not to waste our energies on enmpty debates but rather must and ought to employ these to catcall a spade a shovel.
    SM Zafar should have taken the cudgels for Shabnam. Cosmetics are no substitute for culture.

    Or I will, in shaw LAW…

    PS: Has the excitement concerning my Harvard degrees died ought naturally phook-nickle-gay-ee or is the coughin still open,

  11. AKB Pakistan Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    the present article is not a satire but a lousy attempt to stir the pot.


    If women can’t protect their ‘shalwars’ why should they blame others??

  12. AKB Pakistan Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    A good Sari, BTW, is comparatively very expensive in Pakistan and therefore not affordable by common women as an economic apparel.
    Fashion, like weather and women, changes all the time. Let women decide their own fate, their own dress, their own whims!

  13. Mohan United Arab Emirates Internet Explorer Windows says:


    A great piece. Thouroghly enjoyed reading this article.

  14. Kamath. Canada Safari iPad says:

    G Akbar:
    You forgot that it is not the combination of shalwar-kameez that is important and makes a woman, but the contents underneath them. That is is very important! It is the meat and not the dressing.

    Wa Salaam

  15. AKB Pakistan Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @ Kamath

    OMG!! Things are getting rotten!

  16. AKB Pakistan Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Allama Iqbal rightly said……….in a way…

    HUsn waloan ko jo apni beHijaabi ke leeay
    Hoan agar shalwar se lehngay pasand………..
    tu shalwar achi ke lehgay rung ba-rung??

  17. AKB Pakistan Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Kitni sharm kee baat he
    k ik khatoon kahay
    hamari shalwar bachao
    khuda in auratoan ko de dimaag
    garm phoonkoan se bujhayen na charaagh
    apnay hathoan se laga kar gaanth woh
    daanton se kholti hein magar khulti nahi
    apnay hee aymaal per hein sharminda
    aur shikayat he zamanay se
    kash koi poochey zara in auratoan se
    shalwar mein he konsi khoobi ke jo
    trouser ya pajamay mein nahi
    libaas ka magsad he tan ko dhanpna
    shalwar pehno ya koi sa bhi libaas
    pehna jaata he dress jaisa bhi ho
    shalwar mein kia khaas he aisa bhi ho?
    Dhoti pehan lo tu lago tum aur haseen
    Nazneeno, dilrubao, parda nasheen!

  18. Anil Kala India Google Chrome Windows says:

    Is it salwar or shalwar?

  19. Skeptic India Safari iPad says:

    A Patiala shalwar worn with a short kurta (but without a dupatta ) is very much a fashion rage in India especially among young girls.
    I am surprised it is not so in Pakistan.

  20. Amin Kuwait Safari iPad says:

    Excellent piece of satire on the cultural and sartorial aspects of pakistani politics.
    @ anil kala: it is pronounced SHALWAR in Pakistan based on its Persian equivalent meaning trouser. Kameez is from the Arabic ‘ Qamis’. In India, some call it SALWAR though I don”t think that is the case amongst North Indians.

  21. ahem Germany Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    to amin and anil

    s and sh have been confused in many languages (e.g. in Bangali and Gujarati). Furthermore since the arabic-urdu s and sh are very similar in script (one often does not bother to write the three dots that are necessary for a sh), hence the NW Indians also confuse between s and sh.

    The bangalis do not differentiate between v and b, – or aa and o, or j and z. The arabs and iranians don’t always differentiate between u and o and v, – or between i and e and y.

    Tamilians don’t differentiate between k and g, – or t and th and d, – or ch and j, – or p, f and b.

    And so on.

  22. AKB Pakistan Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    The ”kali shalwar” by Manto comes to my mind and makes me think why some women vie for a black shalwaar and how low they can stoop to acquire one!!

  23. Promod Kapoor India Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Good satire though slightly long article. In 1970 when I first went to Madras (Now Chennai) from Delhi, I could hardly see anyone wearing salwar kameez. Now it, or its variation – chooridaar, is worn throughout the country. For our daughter’s wedding my wife went all the way to Hyderabad to get good salwar kameez material!

  24. Laila United Kingdom Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    It brings to mind Kaali Shalwar by Manto.!! A black shalwar to die for.!! A well written article on the politics of fashion. If worn well and tailored to suit the wearer it is a beautiful dress. To mind comes Hina Rabbani Khar as well as Sherry Rahman. Poor late BB unfortunately had a tailor in Larkana, as hers were always out of date.

  25. AKB Pakistan Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Chooridar pajama is ancient Indian dress….shalwar is a modification thereof. Choori dar pajama and kurta suit well on pretty tall gals:) Current fad in Pakistan is for tight pajama’s or shalwars….without choori. But some years ago women had craze for Ulti shalwar and Kolha Puri shalwar. How frail these women become when it comes to attire!!

    Black or Kali shalwar is a sexually appealing dress and there is no reason that men won’t fall for a woman dressed in a black ‘salwaar’!!

  26. Sohail Butt Qatar Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Great article written about a subject that very few can ever think about as something worth writing about. A very comprehensive and multi dimensional view has been taken of a ‘form’ of clothing that signifies a point and evokes identity, emotions, belonging, style and character from a historical and cultural perspectives as well as reminds us ‘where we were’ and where we are headed for and what it really means and in the end all falling within a context.

    Well done Mrs. Akbar. Keep writing and we shall keep waiting for another master piece of yours.

  27. Armandsohn Pakistan Safari iPad says:

    What a beautiful piece! It is comprehensive and in delightful diction.
    Can a senior citizen also join THE MOVEMENT FOR RESTORATION OF SHALWAR.

  28. The best sway to save(y)our shalwars is not to wear these. As St John said: T-Ruth shall make you (Ja) Free! Not wearing shalwars will mean less use of cotton. The bottom line is that worldwide
    demand of cotton will recede and consequently clothes flor the poor.

  29. Shamla and Shalwar United States Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    “Their dress was not Indian, Western or even Arab. It was Pakistani. For better or for worse, it also bracketed them with the gun-toting Shalwar-clad Afghan Mujahedeen romanticized by Reagan, Thatcher and the Western media. (Agent 007 James Bond sported a shalwar-kameez to take on the might of the Soviets in ‘The Living Daylights.’)”

    The author fails to give credit to the Afghans for influencing Zia’s Islamicization programmes. In his attempt to bring cultural and ideological unity to Pakistan, a nation where people wore saris, dhotis and lungis he adopted the Afghan styled Shalwar Kameez as the national awami dress. Pakistan has a long tradition of borrowing and coopting language, culture and dress from Afghanistan, Iran and now Saudi Arabia at the expense of discarding every aspect of its own indigenous culture.

    Even Jinnah sported the Karakol, which is an Afghan head gear. There is nothing Pakistani about the Shalwar Kameez, starting from its name. It is no surprise that Pakistan’s missiles are named after Abdali, Ghaznavi and Babur none of them are Pakistani.Pakistan has always looked beyond its borders for identity and culture.

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