Fashion Statements

This is an edited version of an article published at Café Pyala. You can read the article in its entirety at their website.

A design from Khaadi's collection. Image AFP, via The Dawn.

A design from Khaadi's collection. Image AFP, via The Dawn.

Oh, shoot. Here we go again with coverage of Fashion Week in Pakistan. Can we do anything in Pakistan without it being linked in some way to either appeasing the Taliban or kicking sand in their faces?

I refer of course to the latest “I-spit-on-the-runway-the-Taliban-sashay-down” type of pieces in the American Christian Science Monitor (titled predictably “Lahore Fashion Week Takes on Talibanization in Pakistan”) and in Britain’s The Times about the just concluded Lahore Fashion Week. The latter may be headlined a bit more soberly (“Pakistan Fashion Week Pushes Back Boundaries”), but the prose is nothing less than a deep shade of purple.

For example, here are the opening lines:

“A call to prayer echoed over the red carpet. The celebrity guests and socialites of Lahore lifted their diamante stilettos through the scarlet pile, careful not to trip as they showed lipsticked smiles – and bare shoulders – to the flashing camera bulbs.”

Just in case you forgot what The Times was aiming to get at, you understand. Gasp! Muslims. Fashion. Shock. Bare shoulders. Horror.

But far be it from The Times to simply imply something when they can get their facts utterly wrong in black and white:

“Pakistan’s first Government-endorsed fashion week finished yesterday. There is hope that with it will disappear decades of the government repression that had previously forced the scene underground.”

Underground scene? Hellooooo! We just had another fashion week in Karachi, not three months ago! Kind of missed the bus on the “underground scene,” by like, two decades, don’t you think? I think The Times has kind of got Generals Zia ul Haq and Musharraf confused…which would be fair enough in some respects but certainly not this. Just to put the record straight, recall that fashion shows (which existed before and even during Zia’s regime) were being sponsored by Benazir’s government in the early ’90s and even taken abroad as part of her foreign delegations. And what was the Musharraf reign, if not about state-sponsored fashion?

Here’s some more editorial pronouncements by writer Mary Bowers:

“A triumph for young liberals, the event was also a red rag to those who protect conservative Islamic values with an iron fist. Inter Services Intelligence and the bomb squad were standing by to keep out haute couture’s uninvited guests.”

Eh? Ever been to a party in Pakistan, Ms. Bowers? Or Nargis’ dance-theatre? Or to see a Pushto film? Ever picked up a copy of GT? Mostly, if the ISI is there, it’s to enjoy itself.

Bowers also, incredibly, inserts the following bit in her tribute to the changing Pakistan:

“…even Pakistani TV crews happily meet gleaming and unveiled faces.”

Whoa! Since when did TV crews (TV crews, for God’s sake!) ever refuse to meet “gleaming and unveiled faces?” I mean, have you even seen Pakistani channels, Ms. Bowers? And no, Haq TV does not count. We don’t even know if it’s a Pakistani channel, since we can’t see their faces.

But how can one blame just Mary Bowers and The Times, when she has such a treasure-trove of our own people to apparently provide whacked out quotes. (I add the word “apparently” here only because with a reporter with such a penchant for checking her facts, who can trust her memory or jotting skills?) For instance, here’s “freelance fashion writer” Aamna Isani leading her up the garden path:

“We have seen the fashion world in Pakistan evolve in recent years,” said Aamna Isani, a freelance fashion writer. “Ten years ago we weren’t allowed to say the word ‘fashion’. We had to go for a ‘cultural event’ with clothes.”

Ten years ago was the year 2000. You weren’t allowed to use the word “fashion,” Ms Isani??? Which paper were you freelancing for exactly? Takbeer?

Here’s Isani again talking about the elitism of Pakistan’s fashion shows:

“I think we’ll really evolve when we have women on the catwalk with purdah, too,” she says. “It’s an irony that we’re OK with navels and arms now, but not with the veil. 80 per cent of women in Pakistan wear the veil and many want to. They’d want to even if they had the option. They are pushing us away and we are pushing them away.”

Leave aside the fact that Isani seems to be confused about the whole concept of the purdah/veil, where exactly has she got the “80 percent” figure from? One can sympathize with Isani’s idea of inclusive liberalism, but I am more and more inclined to believe that she has spent most of her life inside the Takbeer offices.

Then you have Instep‘s editor making one of her usual cryptic comments:

“Now that women work like men they must dress like men,” said Muniba Kamal, fashion editor at the national daily The News. “I wouldn’t go burning our bras though. We need those.”

Of course, nothing would have come together for Bowers without this bit of sensationalism:

“Half an hour before the show we were getting death threats and phone calls and all kind of blackmail,” says a model, Meesha Shafi, 28. “They had our names. It’s very scary.”

Er, yes, Ms. Shafi, who could possibly know your name or that of the other models? I mean, it’s not like you guys are on the pages of Sunday every week, or on the cover of fashion magazines and billboards, in newspapers or acting in TV dramas and giving interviews on television, right? Or in a sleeveless tank-top on your band’s website, right? But what I want to know is, what kind of blackmail was this really about? I have visions of someone threatening you, “if you don’t walk the ramp for Umar Sayeed, we’ll make sure you are forced to walk for Hourain!” Now that would be scary.

Remember folks, at the end of the day, it’s just clothes. The Taliban wear clothes too. And more of them. Let’s keep things in perspective.

  • Ruwayda Mustafah

    “Now that women work like men they must dress like men,”

    The very problem with Western feminism – Men are set as the ‘standard’. I work like men, but I dress like a woman because I am a woman and would feel offended if I was told to dress otherwise.

  • Ruwayda Mustafah

    Oh and I know that the likes of Muniba Kamal have confused the very concept of ‘feminism’ to mean being identical with men, just like contemporary feminists in the west have…boo hoo.

  • Willow

    Ameen, Ruwayda!

  • Bassam

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I should be visiting this site more often.

  • Sobia

    As a Pakistani-Canadian who is regularly exposed to Pakistani media, fashion, etc. I’m always amazed at how Western media keeps describing Pakistan as some hyper-conservative Taliban country. I still remember my 1997 trip to Pakistan and seeing scantily-clad models in Pakistan fashion magazines, including on catwalks. At that time I was introduced to famous Pakistani models like Vaneeza Ahmed, Amina Haq, etc who were wearing (gasp) sleeveless, midriff showing saris, among other things! And the thing is, that wasn’t when it started. Pakistani women have been wearing such clothes since the inception of the country. It’s not new. Fashion has been a huge part of Pakistani culture and forever.The (disturbing) turn toward hyper-conservatism is relatively new and an import from the Middle East, via the many Pakistani ex-pats returning to Pakistan from that region and Saudi funding of Pakistani religious institutions.

    Being exposed to Pakistani media for as long as I have (and I’ve lived in Canada my whole life therefore removed from a Pakistani context) would make one realize that these reporters have not done any research on Pakistani culture.

  • miriam

    Rumayda: you are so right!

  • A western feminist

    “just like contemporary feminists in the west have”

    Do we all? There´s also something called Occidentalism.

    I wonder, does the muslim feminist movement like MMW have any ambitions at all to unite with other women in a future, also western women – or is this as a lot of other things first of all a identityproject where lines are drawn between the good muslim feminist and the weird western feminist?

  • Fatemeh

    @ a western feminist: Muslim women (and Muslim feminists) have just as many misconceptions and stereotypes about “Western” feminists as Western feminists do about Muslim women/feminists. But I think the value is in the blending: women like myself who are Western AND Muslim–can we be considered both? It’s women like us who are going to bring two (seemingly) disparate groups together–if each side can respect each other.

  • Ruwayda Mustafah

    @ Western feminist: I am very critical and sceptical about CONTEMPORARY western feminist movements because I don’t understand the basis of their movements, is it simply to say men and women are the same or that they should be treated equally where they are equal. In essence feminism is not necessarily incompatible with Islam, what is incompatible is some contemporary feminist thought about ‘gender roles’ prevalent in the west.

    I’ve been trying to read feminist literature for a while and everything I’ve read is actually from a western perspective as opposed to a eastern perspective. I believe some of our struggles will always be the same but our goals and ambitions will be different but I doubt we share the same struggles today. I support some feminist movements in the East but I have yet to come across a serious feminist movement in the west that doesn’t bash Islam or women under Islam.

    My problem with feminist women (not all), regardless of religion is in the fact that they always set men to be the standard of everything, and why should we? Are we not capable of being the height of some form of standard, perhaps even better than men?

  • Sobia

    @ Ruwayda:

    “I have yet to come across a serious feminist movement in the west that doesn’t bash Islam or women under Islam.”

    Interesting. My experience has been the opposite. I’ve mainly come across feminism that DOESN’T bash Islam or Muslim women. My experiences with feminism have been very positive and feminists I’ve met stand in solidarity with minority women, including religious minorities.

    “My problem with feminist women (not all), regardless of religion is in the fact that they always set men to be the standard of everything…”

    Society does this, not feminists. Feminists just acknowledge, critique and challenge it. Some feminists try to be like men, but many feminists try to challenge what it means to be of a certain gender.

    “what is incompatible is some contemporary feminist thought about ‘gender roles’ prevalent in the west.”

    This would depend upon which interpretation of Islam one follows. I’m a practicing Muslim but I don’t believe that men and women have inherent gender roles. I believe gender roles are socially constructed. And I believe that is perfectly compatible with Islam. Others would not agree with me.

    Having said all that I do sympathize when feminism critiques religion. Most religions today have very misogynistic interpretations, including Islam. In my opinion, the most common interpretations of Islam followed today are quite sexist. So as a Muslim feminist I wouldn’t dismiss this critique. It is valid. I just choose to follow an egalitarian interpretation of Islam.

  • Emily

    Interesting topic. I’m a feminist, of Western and atheistic background, but I find the terms “Western feminist” and “Muslim feminist” at best misguided, at worst divisive.

    Being a feminist simply means you think men and women should be equal, legally and socially, and acknowledging that they are not. Culture, creed and even gender don’t come into it. There’s no such thing as “Muslim feminism,” or “Western feminism,” just like there is no such thing as “Muslim science” or “Western science.”

    To be honest, my main experience of feminists in the West has been one of cultural relativism, a very self-conscious move away from being perceived as culturally imperialist. Which means, imho, they often turn a blind eye to some serious forms of misogyny, such as stoning of rape victims and child brides, and some slightly less serious forms of misogyny such as the niqab and the burqa, and doctrinal subordination of wives to husbands.

    Feminists from all over the world should unite against misogyny in all its forms. In order to do this we need to move past the divisive discourse of Orientalism vs Occidentalism, and not play into the hands of those power brokers who would keep us divided. I hope we can.


    God bless you Sobia.
    I have nothing more to add to what you just said: simply PERFECT.

  • Rachael

    There are many different feminisms. And why shouldn’t there be? Feminist thought isn’t monolithic, which is, in my opinion, a perfectly reasonable thing, and even a strength. Each culture is going to have its own flavors of feminism, born of the needs and norms of that society. I believe that, underlying this, we all desire the same equality and justice for all women.

    Most American feminists (since those are the communities I know most about) do not want women to be men. This is a common misconception, fueled mostly by anti-feminists and the mainstream media. That said, there *is* an aversion to gender essentialism among American feminists that I do not see among others. I share this aversion, since in my work as a research psychologist I am aware of how much of a role culture plays in the “creation” of gender, and gender differences. This does not mean I see men and women as the same. I just don’t believe that the differences are that great.

    So yes, I think that saying “I am a Muslim feminist” can be entirely accurate—and such a feminism is vitally necessary for us to accomplish our goals. I think the world needs feminism grounded in, and growing from, every single culture and religion.