India, Islam, muslim civilization, Pakistan, politics, sex, Social Change, South Asia, women, women's rights
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For Pakistani women, dupattas are more than a fashion statement


The long scarves that many wear with traditional shalwar kameez outfits are laden with religious and cultural significance. For some it’s a sign of Islamic modesty, for others a cumbersome relic.

February 23, 2010|By Mark Magnier

Reporting from Karachi, Pakistan — Seeking a competitive edge, fabric designer Vaneeza Ahmad spent hours on the phone to China but couldn’t find anyone to make her new line of dupattas, the omnipresent scarves that Pakistani women drape over their arms, head, chest.

China may be the world’s factory floor, but its scarf makers aren’t equipped for something that can be more than 8 feet long. Ahmad fretted, until, after much wrangling, she found a solution.

“I’ve located a curtain maker who could do it,” she said triumphantly. “They’ve got the only machines big enough to handle our dupattas.”

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.

The South Asian dupatta, which lies somewhere between its religious cousins — the shorter head scarf popular in Turkey and Indonesia and the take-no-prisoners niqab and abaya worn in Saudi Arabia — is such a fixture of Pakistani culture that many women here say they feel naked without one.

And while it may grow longer or shorter, wider or narrower, plainer or more extravagant with fashion’s whims, it’s a long-standing fixture in this conservative Islamic country, with a role in bolstering izzat, or modesty and respect. Nearly all Pakistani women wear a dupatta, at least occasionally.

“It has a multitude of uses,” said designer Rizwan Beyg, who outfitted the late Princess Diana — she declined to wear adupatta with his ensemble — on one of her visits to Pakistan. “While its main use is to cover the boobs, butt and head, it can also be a sash, even a belt.”

The dupatta played a cameo role in the 1947 founding of Pakistan, but its first appearance, some claim, dates back 4,000 years to the Indus Valley civilization, evidenced by sculpture from the period showing high priests apparently wearing dupattas.

As Britain’s grip weakened in the 1940s, young Muslim women campaigning for the creation of Pakistan used theirdupattas to make a statement. Caught without a green-and-white Muslim League flag, writer Mumtaz Shahnawaz famously whipped off her green dupatta on the roof of the Lahore jail to vent her discontent. Weeks later, 14-year-old Fatima Sughra used hers to replace the Union Jack atop a Punjab government building.

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