Written by Basharat Tayyab: When I first came to Canada from Pakistan in 1997 June, as a Pakistani woman, I was used to wearing dupatta as part of my national dress-Shalwar kameez, sometimes known as Punjabi dress in Canada.
What is a dupatta? Its origin is ascribed to the ancient Indus valley civilization which was perhaps later adopted by Indian Mughals and finally became an integral part of women's clothing in all of Indian subcontinent. Different South Asian communities have different types of dupattas. It has been a symbol of a woman's modesty in South Asia. It is also an alternate to burqa a traditional black covering from head to toe. Historically speaking, veils, hijabs and scarves have been in use throughout India and South Asia for hundreds of years.
Dupattas have often been used as head coverings for religious gatherings and special ceremonies such as weddings or even funerals. Ironically, as much as dupatta is used to cover while praying it is also used by dancing girls provocatively.
Dupattas are mostly adorned by embroidery, lace, sequences or simply have adorned borders. It is a long scarf which is worn in varying styles over a South Asian dress. A dupatta must match and also complement the dress. Most often the long scarf is throne on both shoulders with its middle part over the front of the body much like a huge garland. It may sometimes be worn over the head and then cover the body like a cape. Nowadays in urban Pakistan, it is fashionable that women wear dupatta with shalwar kameez and throw it on one should allowing it to flow in the front and back.
Dupatta can be made from any fabric from chiffon to cotton to silk or muslin, linen or georgette and can be of different sizes and colors. In fact the size and fabric of a dupatta can be telling of a woman's place in the society. It can be a statement of style, a symbol of religiosity, a sign of a woman's place in society or it can be a symbol pf political action. Before the creation of Pakistan, Muslim women of India used their dupattas as flags for Muslim league a political party that was fighting for the creation of Pakistan. If forcibly removed, it implies an assault on the woman or her family. If exchanged among women, it means a sisterly bond has been established among the two women. When presented to a woman, it implies respect to her. From a symbol of pride, it has been a tool for political victimization and religious oppression as well.
Pure white muslin dupatta initially signified grace as worn by Fatima Jinnah, sister of M.A. Jinnah- the founder of Pakistan, and begum Rana Liaqat Ali khan, wife of the first Prime Minister of Pakistan. A V shaped sash type dupatta became an integral part of school uniforms for girls and still remains so. As dupatta started being recognized as a public code of dress for Pakistani women, the traditional burqa and chador started giving way to it as more and more women choose dupatta instead of a heavier and more cumbersome outer garments like burqa or chaddors. They found dupatta as more practical and felt liberated by adopting it as opposed to burqa for example.
However, during 80s when Pakistan was under the wave of Islamization, women appearing on Public television were ordered to cover their heads. This order met with a lot of opposition and was later retracted. Since then dupatta became a symbol of religiosity. Consequently, when Benazir Bhutto came to power, she had to cover her head with her dupatta to endorse her Islamic identity.
Dupatta is an integral part of traditional South Asian garments for religious ceremonies and special occasions such as weddings. Most South Asian brides adorn their attires with heavily embellished dupattas symbolizing their modesty and enhancing their beauty. It is an everyday accessory with a history going back to ancient times. In global culture, many Western fashion trends have been inspired by it.
In the end we can say that dupattas come in varying sizes, colors and fabrics and they are as multi purpose as a fashion accessory, a religious attire, a symbol of modesty, a statement of fashion, a sign of respect or a sense of security. A dupatta may have one or all of the following meanings: it may symbolize an essence of femininity, flare for film and literature, political statement, cultural icon, hindrance or a sign of dignity.
Written by Basharat Tayyab