A few days ago, the LA Times had an interesting piece on dupattas and Pakistani women. For those of you who don’t know what a dupatta is, it’s a long scarf that is generally worn with a shalwar kameez – essentially a long(ish) tunic worn over trousers (or capris, depending on your fashion statement du jour). Growing up, I was constantly lectured for allowing my dupatta to drag on the floor, or leaving it crumpled somewhere. If I forgot to wear it, I felt brazen and uncomfortable, instantly garnering stares from those who felt the scarf was synonymous with feminine modesty. At the same time, the dupatta also allowed me to shift seamlessly into more conservative environments, from wearing it draped on my shoulder to wrapping it loosely over my hair. It offered me, somewhat ironically, a sense of freedom. Therefore, as much as I’d claim a love/hate relationship with the dupatta, I cannot deny this versatility. In the Times piece, Mark Magnier wrote,
Essence of femininity, grist for film and literature, political statement, cultural icon, albatross, these few ounces of cotton or silk fabric have woven their way across Pakistan’s shoulders, history and fashion runways, morphing from protest symbol to political must-have to sometimes-burdensome accessory demanded by Islamic fundamentalists.
As Magnier pointed out, the dupatta has been a multi-faceted symbol in Pakistan’s history, a source of feminism and protest as well as a tool of imposition and oppression. In the lead-up to the Partition of India and Pakistan, female activists reportedly used their dupattas as makeshift flags for the Muslim League. A Dawn piece wrote,
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.
As Pakistan became a more conservative state (in the mid-1970s onwards), the dupatta became an increasingly controversial symbol. According to Magnier, women on state-run television were ordered to cover their heads as part of an increasing religious-nationalist vision for Pakistan. “News readers who refused were fired, leading others in defiance to pin the fabric’s edge to their hair, a look some likened to the landing of a tiny UFO.” The dupatta was increasingly depicted as a symbol of Islamic modesty and piety. But it always continued to be one of protest. According to Dawn, “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.” Mohsin Sayeed, a writer, told the LA Times, “The dupatta was a stand-in. They weren’t going to take off their bras and wave those around.”
Today, there are still cases of women being harassed or lectured for not wearing their dupatta. A friend who attended Karachi’s Institute of Business Administration, a top university, wore jeans and a shirt on her second week of school, and was immediately called into the administration’s office and told “never to repeat that offense again.” Though the rules at IBA have since become more relaxed, and the increasing trend among young girls in Karachi is to wear shalwar kameezes sans dupatta, this outlook certainly does not extend everywhere in Pakistan, especially not outside the main cities. Dawn noted, “…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.”
The dupatta debate is endlessly interesting, and can be likened to the burqa controversy (ban and enforcement), or even to the pro-choice debate in the United States. At the end of the day, it shouldn’t matter if a woman wears or abandons her scarf, the crux of the issue is whether she has the choice to do so. It’s also a matter of perspective, something that has been exemplified throughout Pakistan’s history. A dupatta can be viewed as a symbol of modesty, but it also can be used as a sign of protest. It can be a tool of state control or a key to freedom. However way you want to look at it, a dupatta is much, much more than a long piece of cloth.
Other less traditional (and more fun) uses for the dupatta: