Monday, June 1, 2009

Fashion as a Social Indicator: Capris and Burkas

I came to Pakistan quite confident in my kameez shalwar from five years ago.  But as I got ready for work on my first day, my cousin assured me, “Don’t worry, everyone will know you are from America.”

Men in Pakistan can wear Western clothes but, for women, kameez shalwar are a staple, if not a must.  It consists of a long shirt (kameez), baggy pants (shalwar, think Jasmine’s harem pants) and a long scarf worn across the shoulders (dupatta).  The three-piece outfits were always a package deal, meticulously coordinated.

Now, however, the kameez shalwar is beginning to look like western clothing.  Tops are stitched to look like dresses, shalwars have been replaced with “trousers,” and dupattas are being discarded.  And tops and bottoms are now sold separately, mix and match, just like jeans and t-shirts.

Hemlines are also being raised, as they were throughout the 20th century in the United States.  Women are now wearing “capris,” and compensating for it with long, loose shirts.  Capris are a critical victory.  I fought my own battle at home a few years ago.  But now they have been incorporated into the traditional dress in a conservative Muslim country.   

But like everything in Pakistan, the world of fashion is stratified.  There must be at least as many burkas in Karachi as capris, although the two worlds rarely meet.

When I lived in Karachi, in the early 1990s, none of my many aunts covered.  Now, they all wear burkas when they leave the house.  Burkas have become a common sight on the streets of Karachi, among women who must walk or use public transportation, especially in the poorer neighborhoods of town where the upper classes would never venture. 

I assumed that burkas reflect increased religiosity.  For my aunts and many middle class women, it might.  But it has also become a new standard of conservatism—fashion with a function, to avoid harassment and the prying eyes of men.  Harassment has always been a problem in Pakistan.  And in a society with no social protections, burkas offer a way for women to be completely hidden, while completely exposed. 

Both capris and burkas make a strong statement, in defiance of one another.  And inherent in the skin they expose, or their folds, is class, education, international exposure, discrimination, and gender-based violence, as well as religious ideology.  Whether these two worlds come closer together, or continue to define themselves in opposition to one another, reflects the struggle for the future of Pakistan. 


  1. Really interesting observations, Nadi. I wonder though about how much 'good' burkas (or capris for that matter) do for those women in Pakistan who don't feel comfortable in either?

    Also, while for the time being burkas offer a way for women to be able to walk freely in public, it scares me to think in the future (if things continue to go the way they are going) even burkas will not protect women from harassment and violence.

  2. Things will change for the better hopefully. Also, Huma Yusuf's article that you mentioned is an OG and was there at the shaadi the other day.

  3. I think this was a very interesting post. It's amazing how one gets a different perspective on seemingly trivial things one's country just when someone else notices them and points them out. Not that you're an outsider in Pakistan or anything. :)