By Maliha Khan
The politicization of clothing for women is often observed in the South Asian region, particularly, in my home country Pakistan. As women in Pakistan continue their fight against the deeply-entrenched patriarchy, one of their struggles is to reclaim their right to wear whatever their hearts desire. The Sari is one such item of clothing that has drawn constant criticism being considered by many in Pakistan an “Indian” or “Hindu” garment. By designating shalwar kameez as the national dress of Pakistan, the alienation of sari became a political move in order to cut ties with anything that came from the pre-Partitioned India and forge a new distinct national identity different from that of India and Bangladesh, where sari is still worn by many women on a daily basis.
In 1977, when General Zia seized power in Pakistan in a military coup, his regime launched an extensive campaign to control what women wore which extended to the sari as well, writes Khawar Mumtaz in his book Women of Pakistan: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back (1987). Although the right-wing’s attempts to ban the sari failed as many women in the higher ranks of government continued to wear saris, including women officers on non-combat duty in the Pakistani Army, this certainly created a dichotomy between what was considered national and what was Islamic.
Islamization has a long history in Pakistan since the 1950s, however, it became the “centerpiece” of General Zia’s administration, as Owen Bennet Jones writes in his book Pakistan: Eye of the Storm (2002). Zia introduced Islamic laws leading to the Islamization of the legal system, Islamized the educational curriculums by making teaching of the Quran and Islamiat (Islamic studies) compulsory in schools and generally promoted the observance of Islamic moral standards. Thus, by categorising the sari as “unislamic”, Zia’s regime began to police women’s clothing choices too, in order to ensure they dressed modestly, consistent with the Islamic way of living.
Growing up in Karachi, watching Indian TV serials and Bollywood films, I noticed that sari was an essential part of Indian women’s wardrobe. I often wondered why most women in Pakistan didn’t wear saris as part of their everyday clothing anymore even though it was very much a part of Pakistani culture up until the 1970s. Recently I learned that during Zia’s regime in1981, female news anchors were barred from wearing the sari, as part of the ‘Islamisation’ campaign. Even though Zia has been long dead, the everyday-sari-wearing culture is almost non-existent in Pakistan.
My first memory of a sari is from the time my nani’s older sister who we call babu-wali nani, owing to the fact that she refers to us kids as babu, came to visit us when I was about five. She is a short, lean woman, about 4 feet and 8 inches. Her cotton saris, soft as mulmul draped her petite lean figure beautifully creating soft waves through the fabric. Even after moving to Pakistan after the partition, she is the only woman in my family who continued to wear a sari every day.
Both my mother and father’s families originally hail from Bihar in India and lived in East Pakistan for several years before finally coming to Karachi. While I have seen pictures of my nani wearing a sari, I can’t recall ever seeing her wearing one. I learned from ammi that nani used to wear saris everyday, even after coming to Pakistan up until I was born. I do remember my dadi wearing saris though even after I was born well into my early teens. After that, for some reason she stopped wearing them too and started wearing shalwar-kameez instead. My mother, on the other hand, only wore saris at close family weddings, and that too she stopped once she gained some weight in the past decade or so. When I asked her about it, she told me that it was difficult to carry a sari when my brothers and I were toddlers and shalwar kameez was much more comfortable to wear at weddings after she had us. Despite that, for some reason, we both knew she would wear a sari at my wedding reception and she did.
Through the women in my family, I came to know about the different types of saris, each with its own unique fabric and design. From babu-wali nani, I learned about the effervescent cotton saris which, when new, can be crisp yet malleable and when washed and worn over time, can soften like pure mulmul. From nani and dadi, I came to appreciate georgette saris – plain cream and gold ones through nani and printed ones through dadi. From ammi, I found out about the ‘fancy’ saris which were worn at weddings and were, as Saba Imtiaz writes, “a customary part of a bride’s trousseau” – both bari as well as jahez.
Growing up, I used to look forward to the shopping trips my mother would make with my aunts and/or grown-up cousins to Jama Cloth Market before a wedding in the family. As a woman of style herself, known for her excellent taste in clothes, my mamoos and chachoos had delegated the responsibility of preparing the bari of their soon-to-be bride to my mother. A wholesale fabric market in Karachi established even before Independence, Jama Cloth is famous for ‘fancy’ bridal dresses and saris. Upon reaching the market, we would scour each shop for nice and affordable bridal shararas, one for the wedding and one for the reception along with other items for the trousseau including saris. While ammi’s bari and jahez (from back in 1991 when she got married) had consisted of mostly Banarasi saris and georgette ones with delicate golden threads, the ones we bought for my future aunts were more ‘fancy’ – most of them embroidered with heavy zari and dabka work. Banarasi saris had apparently become a thing of the past in my family, except when they were adorned by some of my extended aunts from Orangi Town (who lived near Banaras Colony – the home of Banarasi fabric in Pakistan) at some family wedding.
My family was amongst those who had maintained the idea that saris are only appropriate after marriage, although my mother told me that both she and khala-ammi (her older sister) used to wear them in Bangladesh even before they got married. Surprisingly, this unusual custom crept in our family once they came to Pakistan, despite it being ‘normal’ for unmarried girls to wear saris when they lived in Bangladesh. She did say, though, that girls of upper/middle stratum ‘good’ families (whether Bengali or Bihari) that went to school wore shalwar kameez usually and only wore saris sometimes for example, on school picnics. On the other hand, girls from the lower strata who didn’t go to school wore saris on a daily basis instead of shalwar kameez. Married women, be it from upper or lower stratum, always wore saris there. I found this distinction of wearing saris between social classes in Bangladesh interesting, further contributing to the discussion on the dress code among women in East Pakistan back in the day.
Since I had subconsciously accepted that only married women could wear saris, I was surprised to learn about the tradition of wearing saris at school and college ‘farewell’ parties. The idea of me wearing a sari before I was married was a new one, both for me and my mother, albeit more exciting for me. Although my mother didn’t exactly say no to it, I could tell that she was a bit unsettled with the idea. I was, of course, the first one in my family from my generation to wear a sari before marriage. Even cousins older than me who are still unmarried have never worn one simply because they are still single.
At the time of my university farewell, I wanted to look sexy in my sari attire. The sexiest sari look in Bollywood around that time was that of Deepika Padukone in the famous song Badtameez Dil from the film, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. Obviously, mine could never be as sexy as hers living in Pakistan, yet I took some inspiration from her look and got a royal blue chiffon sari stitched from one of the tailors in our neighbourhood. Something I can’t quite forget is the discussion with my tailor about the length of my blouse. While I wasn’t particularly too enthusiastic about showing off my midriff, my mother and tailor wanted me to show little to no skin. We negotiated and settled at 15 inches.
My tryst with unstitched sarees began in India in 2016 when I came to pursue the Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University. We were celebrating Onam – an annual harvest festival from Kerala and all the women in my fellowship were planning on wearing what they were calling Kerala saris – which I later found out were off-white/cream coloured saris with gold zari thread on the borders. Some of the girls were going to Delhi to get one so I tagged along. We went to the INA Market here, famous for cotton saris amongst other things and those amongst the group who were familiar with Delhi and the market helped us get one. I was shocked at the prices of the Kerala saris, starting from 300 Indian Rupees (around PKR 600 at the time). The broader the gold zari border and the better the fabric, the more expensive the sari. My friends and I settled for one which cost us around INR 450 after some bargaining.
Over the course of my fellowship, I would see women in my university wear saris as a daily affair and carry them so effortlessly. Although I lost my first Kerala sari while moving rooms after the Fellowship ended, I love them so much I bought another one for my first Diwali with my husband, Arman in India – this one with beautiful trees and elephants embroidered with gold thread on a cream coloured silk fabric. In fact, I wore this sari to a wedding in Arman’s family which was effectively my debut as his future wife in front of the entire extended family and even their biradari. I knew it was a bold move at my part which probably screamed that I am not a typical Muslim girl since in most Muslim families here in India as well, women would only wear saris after getting married.
Saris, in my case, became a symbol for not only a rebellion from accepted customs but also a way to explore my femininity and my own identity. With enough practice, I can now drape a sari without anyone’s help and recently, I even draped one on a friend. Over my last few years living in India, my sari collection has gradually increased although it is nowhere near what I’d like it to be. I was fortunate enough to receive two khadi cotton saris in my bari which my late mother-in-law, Sadia Dehlvi bought for me. I was also gifted a black and white newspaper print Satya Paul original sari with a beautiful pallu – my favourite till date. Another sari I dearly cherish is one gifted to me by Namita Gokhale, who I like to think of as my Indian godmother. I have even thrifted a sari worn by a woman who had been an inspiring figure to me at the time.
When my mother-in-law, unfortunately, passed on last year, we moved into her home in Delhi. At some point, I had to go through all the clothes she had left behind in a special storage space underneath her bed. I can only imagine her in the beautiful chiffon saris I found amongst many others, as I never got to see her wearing them. I feel blessed to have inherited some of the wardrobes of a woman so loved and celebrated by many.
Although I must admit that I still do not wear saris in my everyday life, the conversations around wearing sari in Pakistan have inspired me to start doing so. It has reminded me of how sexy and confident I feel every time I wear one and I would like to feel that way more on a regular basis. I know that it would probably go unnoticed where I live as compared to in Pakistan, but perhaps when I visit home in Karachi, I could wear a cotton sari in a casual meeting with my relatives and observe their reactions. Maybe it would open up a discussion about wearing saris in my family and perhaps my younger cousins may grow up to wear them, even before they get married. I hope I am around to see that day when it comes.
Maliha is a writer and academic from Karachi. She moved to India to pursue the Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University in 2016 and has been living in Delhi since. She writes about South Asian society and culture as well as food. She is currently working on her first book on the diverse food culture of Karachi.