By Rafia Zakaria
21st March, 2012
THERE are those who
wear the burqa for purely pragmatic reasons: to ward off the catcalls of men
loafing at bus stops and in bazaars, to stanch the slick rumour-mongering
tongues of neighbours, to better protect the outfit underneath from the grime
of city life.
Their needs are simple
and can be met easily. The burqa is a covering and so must be hardy and
resilient, a sort of armour for the woman underneath trying with fabric to put
some space between herself and the encroaching public world.
These recipes would be
simple if the only women who wore the burqa in Pakistan were the practical,
hard-nosed urbanites for whom anonymity is essential to making inroads into
worlds and spaces previously unknown to their gender.
These would be the
female students who have to use public transport to get to and back from a
faraway college, recently migrated village women who must now ply the city
streets to do the shopping and middle-aged housewives for whom educating the
last son or daughter has meant manning a store counter. The encompassing
blackness of the heavy fabric reduces not simply the time required to dress and
become presentable, it coats need and necessity with respectability.
There are some others
who have chosen to wear the burqa in recent years, women who are neither of the
aspiring middle class wresting education or a job from a wasteland of men and
opportunity, or the apologetically poor, interested only in warding off the
leers of guards and gardeners.
These are the women of
tea parties and coffee parties, newly reincarnated in (post) ‘war on terror
Pakistan’ as the newly religious. Like the would-be dieter that happily
collects her gear and gets up before the onerous task of actually eating less,
the paraphernalia of piety is far more crucial in this game than the actual
Among the newly pious,
partaking of tea and pastries in drawing rooms, the allure of the burqa as a
beautiful eccentricity — a newly discovered hobby that elevates morally and
distinguishes socially — presents some unique dilemmas. Survival in this social
set follows a longstanding set of rules, the first of which is conspicuous
If bags and shoes and
scarves and outfits cannot speak for themselves, or shrouded under burqas,
speak at all, they lose both their power and their social purpose. What good is
that diamond bracelet under the tight-buttoned cuffs that cannot be rolled up?
What value is there to that couture outfit denied a voice under an itchy piece
of beige polyester?
All this leads to the
vexing conundrum of projecting both wealth and piety at the same time. What to
do when women with no vocation other than the propagation of status find
themselves addicted to an exploration that contradicts the competitive spending
required of the newly wealthy?
One solution could
have been a choice, where the dictates of one is chosen over the other. As per
this recipe, the diamonds and drawing rooms would be abandoned for the muted
greys and browns that would make the begum undistinguishable from the driver’s
wife and go off to collect tomatoes and potatoes from the neighbourhood market.
This could have
disastrous consequences. Newly covered aunties would look out from the tinted
windows of their Toyota Prados to find the same pale blue geometric hijab from
that one shop on Karachi’s Tariq Road staring back at them from the heads of
women riding on the backs of Honda motorcycles. Everyone knows that Pakistani
society cannot tolerate such confusion of class, mistakes that would make the
rich look poor.
Some of the problems
emanating from the challenge of projecting piety and wealth with a single
garment are pre-empted by the steadily growing influx of Khaleeji Swarovski
crystal-encrusted abayas and hijabs. Some enterprising pious begums have
embraced the task of training tailors to sew matching and contrasting hijabs,
artful patterns and designs that they insist can distinguish the discerning
wearer from the merely ordinary one motivated by practicalities.
None of these
troubles, however, seem to have provoked the question that one would have
expected to evolve from the curious marriage of piety and wealth. With wealthy
Pakistani women swarming to religious revivalism, redefining burqa styles and
investing previously dowdy hijabs with the finesse of their distinctively expensive
tastes, alarmingly few seem interested in exploring the connections between
modesty and poverty.
The revived burqa of
the rich begum can, it seems, traverse all the boundaries of unfettered
spending and showmanship, sport crystals and pearls, cost more than the
salaries of maids, chauffeurs and maybe a couple of office clerks combined, and
yet magically invest its wearer with instant purity and piety.
Its form, ultimately,
is more important than its function. Largely disconnected from the power relations
of the society around it, it can absolve the sins of greed and exhibitionism in
one easy act of covering. Wrapped in an expensive couture burqa or in a Hermès
scarf, the society madam of old is no longer simply wealthy but also devout and
There can be only one
explanation for this lack of focus on the meaning of the begum’s burqa: that
those who have taken on the task of making religion fashionable for the wealthy
have glossed over the ethics of wealth in favour of promoting the garb of
Why not inveigle the
reluctant with the choicest angles of revived faith, new avenues for material
competition and newly discovered inroads for fashion innovation before bogging
them down with the challenges of charity, restraint and honesty?
Under this recipe,
wearing scarves and designing hijabs bears not just a worldly but a
transcendent value, making the begum’s burqa the most fashionable route to
The writer is an attorney teaching political
philosophy and constitutional law.
Source: The Dawn, Karachi