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Pakistan's Gen Z is bringing back the sari. Here's why it matters.

August 19, 2023
topic:Women's rights
tags:#Pakistan, #India, #fashion, #women's rights
located:Pakistan, India
by:Samia Qaiyum
The resurgence of the traditional garment in the Islamic Republic makes much more than a fashion statement.

Pakistan's deeply conservative environment has consistently been a contentious issue, impacting all aspects of life in the Islamic Republic. Take, for instance, the case of the award-winning film Joyland, which garnered international acclaim for its touching portrayal of a cis-transgender romance and faced an initial ban within Pakistan (it was later allowed to screen in specific provinces).

The persistence of stigma surrounding family planning is also notable, primarily due to the influence of religious clerics, despite the country's rapidly growing population. Additionally, polio, a once near-eradicated global threat, still lingers in rural areas of Pakistan, as false rumors about polio vaccines have hindered efforts to fully combat the disease.

But one frequently overlooked aspect of Pakistan's conservative social fabric is the demise of saris.

A seemingly minor event with a significant backstory, the decline of the sari began in the 1980s, and its roots can be traced back to the regime of Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. Although the military general-turned-president passed away in 1988, his era is widely acknowledged as a pivotal period that pushed Pakistan towards Islamisation and had lasting effects on the country's cultural and social fabric.

In fact, many baby boomers in Pakistan still remember the moment when singer Iqbal Bano donned a sari and sang Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poem Hum Dekhenge (We Shall Witness) at Alhamra Arts Council in Lahore as a brazen act of defiance.

It was the year 1985, and both saris and the public recitation of Faiz’s often-revolutionary lyrics were prohibited under Zia ul-Haq's leadership. The military dictator had declared the garment inappropriate, banning it for government personnel and television presenters, and discouraging ordinary women from wearing it.

For those unfamiliar with this South Asian attire, the sari is a traditional garment characterised by a long, unstitched piece of fabric that typically measures between six and nine yards in length. Worn widely across countries like India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, the cloth is wrapped around the waist and  draping over the shoulder, creating a graceful and fluid silhouette.

"Iqbal Bano was considered rebellious for simply wearing a sari, which suggests just how deliberately the garment had been sidelined," said 27-year-old Aiza Hussain about that historic evening.

Based in Lahore, Hussain utilised her education and training in sociocultural anthropology to establish The Saari Girl, a unique venture in Pakistan. On the surface, her online sari store is a platform for fashion, but a deeper examination reveals its true and rather audacious raison d'être.

Reviving a South Asian Symbol

In an effort to engage with Gen Z consumers, modern Indian and Sri Lankan brands such as The Saree Sneakers and Urban Drape are infusing urban aesthetics into saris, introducing elements like embroidered sneakers and athleisure-inspired crop tops.

"Trends are changing everywhere, and India is no exception," observed Radha Parulekar, a textile designer and researcher at The Registry of Sarees. Referring to the sari as its 'compass,' the Bangalore, India-based textile research centre is rooted in the study and preservation of heritage textiles.

"It's bound to happen with every type of garment," Parulekar added. "What's interesting about the sari is that its form has continued through the ages. People want the charm and glamour of wearing a sari, while modernising how its styled."

The Saari Girl, however, has a different objective: it aims to resurrect a piece of intentionally obscured heritage. In 2018, Hussain embarked on her own quest to find this ancient attire, but her efforts proved fruitless.

"'Where has the sari gone?' That's what I found myself asking everyone when I was graduating college and wanted something special to wear," she recalled. "It was bewildering. I wanted something traditional yet contemporary, but struggled to find anything; practically everything was across the border in India. And if I did find something here in Lahore, it was a lot more expensive and entirely out of my reach as a student."

Hussain shared that until the establishment of her brand, the sari had only managed to survive in a handful of isolated circles in Pakistan, such as the Hindu community in the province of Sindh.

"I asked a lot of questions leading up to the formation of The Saari Girl as I was trying to figure out if producing cost-effective saris was even feasible. But this was especially true because I've always been interested in understanding social norms as well as how they're constructed and deconstructed," she explained.

"The partition of India divided assets and altered political borders, but it's not like there was a partition of national dress. It does seem that way for Pakistan, though."

Her body, their choice

It was in the process of exploring the sari's potential resurgence when Hussain became aware of the sheer extent to which women's bodies are policed in Pakistan.

"I spent a lot of time just talking to women and, many times, those conversations had turned into therapy sessions. Many of them lacked body confidence, having dealt with a lot of negative remarks about their appearance. Some had husbands or mothers or even mothers-in-law who curtailed their way of dressing," she said. "Of course, as a woman myself, I could relate to a lot of it, too. But the scale at which I was hearing these accounts is indescribable."

While confessions about personal insecurities frequently came up ("I'm too dark," "My arms are too fat"), family pressure emerged as a primary reason for steering clear of the sari.

"The ones I heard most were 'My mother thinks I should only wear it once I'm married' and 'My husband says it's not modest enough.' There were so many negative connotations attached to the sari, but not the shalwar kameez," reported Hussain. Challenging these negative connotations then became the main driving force behind her work to normalise the sari.

"I wanted to make women comfortable wearing the sari because it's a part of our culture, a part of our heritage. I mean, just a few kilometres away from Lahore is the Indian city of Amritsar, where you will literally see sari-clad women everywhere."

What's faith got to do with it? 

The decline of the sari's popularity wasn't a natural process; issues related to ownership played a significant role in its disappearance.

"Too many of us have 'othered' it, linking it to one particular religion, which brings with it a lot of stigma," Hussain said, referring to the widespread association between the sari and Hinduism. "I know that stigma is a strong word, but after conversing with countless women, I can confirm that the sari is still stigmatised in many communities."

She added, "But look at Bangladesh; it's a Muslim-majority country where the sari is commonly worn. That's why I wouldn't hesitate to say that Zia ul-Haq's reign is partly responsible."

Championing inclusivity, The Saari Girl strives to prove through its visuals that saris can be styled in a variety of ways. This does not only include all body types, but also all preferences across the modesty spectrum.

"We're here to illustrate that you can wear a sari with a low-cut blouse without sleeves or a hijab - both look beautiful. And how you choose to wear yours doesn't have anything to do with religion."

Aayushi Jain, assistant curator at The Registry of Sarees, echoed this sentiment. "All of us are still part of the same geographical region, so we can't refer to the sari as Indian clothing. It's a shared heritage," she told FairPlanet

"Pakistanis can share ownership of it. Bangladesh is a different country now, and saris are popular there. And there's freedom in deciding how much skin you want to show.

"In more conservative parts of India, women opt for longer blouses or wear their saris up higher; there are so many ways of styling it. And there's no wrong way of draping a sari."

In an unexpected cultural exchange, The Saari Girl is garnering interest not only from young women in Pakistan but also from the South Asian diaspora and beyond.

"Indians in the West are curious to see what the 'Pakistani sari' looks like because it's something they haven't seen much of," she shared. "And interestingly, we recently shipped an order to Turkey, where a group of young women will be wearing saris to a wedding in Istanbul."

It comes as no surprise that the sari now occupies a special place in Hussain's heart. "There are over 100 ways to drape a sari, and it won't go out of style, unlike shalwar kameez, where tailoring trends change every season, so I see it as an investment," she said.

"When cared for properly, a sari can be passed on from generation to generation, making it an heirloom that connects young women with their mothers, grandmothers, and even great-grandmothers."

Image by The Saari Girl. 

Article written by:
Samia headshot
Samia Qaiyum
Pakistan India
The decline of the sari began in the 1980s, and its roots can be traced back to the regime of Muhammad Zia ul-Haq
© The Saari Girl
The decline of the sari began in the 1980s, and its roots can be traced back to the regime of Muhammad Zia ul-Haq
The decline of the sari\'s popularity wasn\'t a natural process.
© The Saari Girl
The decline of the sari's popularity wasn't a natural process.
\'I wanted to make women comfortable wearing the sari because it\'s a part of our culture, a part of our heritage.\'
© The Saari Girl
"I wanted to make women comfortable wearing the sari because it's a part of our culture, a part of our heritage."