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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