‘The way a woman wears a dupatta tells you a lot about her,’ a friend once said. That statement aptly reflects the fact that Pakistani women – throughout this nation’s history – have been judged by this single piece of fabric."
Regarded as an integral part of a woman’s costume in Pakistani culture, the dupatta not only underwent many transformations over the past few decades, but also played a significant role in politics – often subject to state interference. What was previously a symbol of pride is now used as a religious tool by the country’s right-wing politicians to exploit women. This was not the case before Partition, when India’s Muslims were fighting for independence. The significance of the dupatta was realised when several female activists participating in the civil disobedience movement used their dupattas as a stand in for the Muslim League flag. The first such instance was recorded in Lahore during a procession in the mid-1940s. A large number of women took to the streets to show support for the Muslim League, including the writer Mumtaz Shahnawaz. Like hundreds of others that day, Shahnawaz was arrested for her agitation. While she was confined, Shahnawaz climbed up to the roof of the Lahore jail. There, she tore her green dupatta and fashioned it into a makeshift Muslim League flag, which she later hoisted on the building. A few weeks later, in another procession, 14-year old Fatima Sughra pulled down the Union Jack from the civil secretariat building in the Punjab and similarly replaced it with a green Muslim League flag fashioned out of her dupatta. Sughra later received the first gold medal of service in Pakistan’s history. Interestingly, in the early years after Partition, the dupatta’s symbolism was more national than religious. For example, the uniform of the Pakistan Women’s National Guard that was formed during the Kashmir War included a dupatta. ‘Since Pakistan was a Muslim state, the dupatta was naturally part of the uniform. However, it was just a sash across the torso…a starched V-shaped dupatta,’ recalls former Sergeant Abeeda Abidi in an interview with the Citizens Archive of Pakistan. Clearly, this sash was meant to be more of a comment than a covering. The years that followed saw leaders such as Fatima Jinnah and Begum Rana Liaquat Ali Khan enter politics. Unlike their female predecessors in the armed forces, these women made public appearances with their heads covered with a dupatta, which was deciphered as a symbol of modesty. Since they had set the trend, women who stepped into politics in subsequent decades were expected to follow suit.
In 1966, the uniform for the PIA airhostesses, designed by Paris-based fashion sensation Pierre Cardin, also included scarf-like dupattas over graceful tunics. In this incarnation, the dupatta was viewed more as an attractive accessory than a symbol of Muslim womanhood.Although a dupatta has always been part of the attire of female politicians of this predominantly Muslim state since the beginning, trends among the masses have been slightly different. It was only in the late 1950s that the dupatta became an integral part of the urban-middle-class woman’s outfit. Before then, some women wore burqas and chadors. But younger women who were looking for some form of covering increasingly opted for dupattas as they proved to be a less stringent alternative.
‘People were more progressive in that era and were willing to accept change, especially during Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s era,’ explains Mehtab Akbar Rashdi, a renowned television anchor and women rights activist. ‘Young men and women adopted the shalwar kameez as their attire and women mostly opted for dupattas because they felt it was more practical than a chador,’ she says, adding, ‘In many ways, the dupatta liberated the women of the middle class.’But thanks to the dictatorial regime of General Ziaul Haq (backed by the Jamaat-e-Islami) that denounced Z.A. Bhutto’s ‘un-Islamic’ ways and enforced Nizam-e-Mustapha (Prophet’s law) across the country, the Muslims of Pakistan were compelled to make religion their focal point. Not surprisingly, the dupatta soon became a centre of controversy. A few months after Gen. Zia came to power, he ordered all television anchors to cover their heads. Rashdi was one such target; however, she refused to bow down to the military dictator’s pressure and did not cover her head. This led to a tussle which resulted in Rashdi being asked quit to her weekly show on PTV. ‘That outcome did not affect me as I was clear about my stance and did not believe in double standards. Since I did not cover my head at home or anywhere else, I felt it would be wrong if I did so only on television,’ she explains. ‘Plus, all my male colleagues respected me irrespective of whether or not I covered my head, so I refused to obey the orders of a dictator who only tried to exploit women in the name of religion.’
Rashdi’s views are echoed by several women activists, including Anis Haroon, chairwoman of the National Commission on the Status of Women, who is also one of the founding members of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF). ‘How a woman chooses to dress is her personal issue. The state has no right to interfere and decide her dress code for her,’ says Haroon.That said, Haroon also points out that the dupatta in Pakistan is viewed as a symbol of respect. In that context, during a protest by WAF outside the Karachi Press Club in 1984, activists chose to burn a dupatta to condemn the increasing incidents of rape in the city. Since the seeds of religiosity had been sown by Gen. Zia, when (late) Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan in 1986, she was also compelled to cover her head in response to discussions among political circles about how ‘Islamic’ she was. Those close to Bhutto say she had to don the dupatta in order to underline her Islamic identity. ‘She may have had her reasons. Possibly her senior advisors told her that she should cover her head if she wanted to win the support of the traditional conservative woman in the rural areas of Pakistan,’ says Rashdi. ‘In my opinion, she should not have done that because her [white] dupatta did not represent the real person Benazir was. She was a liberal and progressive woman.’ In retrospect, Bhutto’s was a wise decision because those female leaders who dared to defy the ‘Islamic’ dress code, such as provincial minister Zil-e-Huma Usman, met an unfortunate fate. The 35-year-old politician, who was serving as the provincial minister for Social Welfare in the Punjab, was assassinated during a political rally in Gujranwala in February 2007. Her crime? She had not covered her head. Usman’s assassin, Mohammed Sarwar, reportedly shot her because he was furious that a woman was standing before the masses – mostly comprising men – without covering her head. Sarwar later told the police that he did not regret the move. While public representatives continue to be judged and targeted for the manner in which they ‘cover’ themselves, the dupatta was reinterpreted as a barrier by renowned Urdu poets who wrote about being unable to steal glances of their beloved because of this single piece of fabric. The complaint was readily addressed by big-name Pakistani fashion designers who began crafting outfits without the dupatta. In the words of one designer, ‘the modern Pakistani woman no longer needs to hide behind any form of veil. She is bold and independent and also knows how to carry herself without the dupatta.’ But Feeha Jamshed, the daughter of style guru Tanveer Jamshed (Teejay), who launched one of Pakistan’s first fashion labels, offers a different viewpoint. Back in the 1970s, Teejays was the first label that began designing women’s outfits without dupattas. ‘Back then, my father saw the impact of Z.A. Bhutto on people’s thoughts and attire. But while the awam (common man) adopted his style, the elite were a bit detached. So Teejays tried to bridge that gap and design the shalwar kameez in a manner that was traditional, yet something the elite could relate to,’ she says. Jamshed, however, believes that most women today have ‘raped the dupatta’ and killed the sole purpose of a veil. Offended by the sight of women who let their dupatta hang around their neck, she wants to rethink its role in contemporary modest attire. ‘Either you cover yourself with a dupatta properly, or avoid wearing a tight shirt and do away with the dupatta entirely,’ says Jamshed. ‘I believe you can look modest without it too; we just need to ask ourselves why exactly we wear the dupatta if it covers us partially. We might as well be honest about the way we dress.’ As a result, what we see today are two extremes: women in urban areas who now voluntarily cover their head and wrap themselves with a dupatta which, they say, gives them a sense of security, and the urban elite who have abandoned the dupatta altogether because they feel it is nothing short of a burden.
Rashdi, however, feels a middle ground is essential because it completes a woman’s outfit. ‘Unfortunately such moderate women are difficult to find today because Gen. Zia compelled Pakistanis to choose the path of religion. That is why a woman from a low- or middle-income neighbourhood in an urban area is hesitant to step out without wrapping herself completely with a dupatta. And once she wears a dupatta, there will always be someone around to remind her that she would be more ‘respected’ if she covers her head as well. With the majority adopting this dress code, it is natural for her to be influenced.’
Fonte: Dawn News