This article was written by Sidra Vohra, a literature and film student in Amsterdam
I remember Amma draped in shades of pink and red mixed in with gold on banarsi kapra that made its rounds around her body—one, two, three, four, I seemed to lose count after five as the pallu draped over her head. Amma was the spitting image of ethereality on her wedding day; immortalized on photo paper, hidden in the pages of my older sister’s favorite book.
The sari has always felt somewhat foreign—a distant entity that remains static in images of yesterday. But despite this foreign feel, the idea of being wrapped in six yards of beautifully crafted silk and satin brings a sense of ease to the mind. The very fact that its history has not been fully erased is a testament to its adaptability through time.
While women of India continue to adorn these six yards on the daily, Pakistan assumes this item of clothing quite differently. Its presence has been formalized into a custom associated only with moments of monumental significance: shaadis and graduations, to be precise.
The shalwar kameez serves as evidence of our Pakistani identity. The sari, on the other hand, is uncharted territory, unlocked only when the wearer is ready.
It has become a marker of the coming of age of young girls—girls that perhaps do not understand the history that is embedded within every thread of the sari’s kapra. Furthermore, the sari has become a method of emulating our elders and has thus been pushed into the domain of sophisticated women.
In its historical prime—the Maurya and Sunga periods (300 BCE)—the sari was a simple yet elegantly draped division of the antariya and uttariya—rectangular pieces of clothing that covered the upper and lower portions of the body respectively.
What the Indian Subcontinent saw as a form of dressing that was founded upon mobility and ease, the British Raj saw as signs of immodesty. Our cultures were forever changed because our colonizers staunchly believed that a deviation from their ideas of modesty was no better than savagery.
Thus the Victorian era marked the fusion of the traditional sari with western standards of modesty in attire, creating the official origin story of the modern-day sari and its blouse. These standards of modesty, however, find their roots in ideas of patriarchal dominion. British women of the Victorian era prioritized modesty over mobility, to the extent that their clothing often caused what was then deemed to be symptoms of hysteria—dizziness and fainting spells. The health of their women was deemed secondary to modesty.
In a similar vein, General Zia’s military dictatorship added to the perception of the sari as immodest and thus a slight to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. For centuries men have been the judges of what is and isn’t modest enough for women to adorn themselves in, but in doing so, they have played a significant role in the loss of our culture and history.
The return of the sari serves as a reclamation of what was once lost to hegemonic beliefs. With each fold layered beautifully, we are reminded of the misconceptions a simply crafted cloth can stir up.
But misconceptions be damned, the sari now exists as a method of sultry beautification—women wear it as they please. While its origins were once deemed immodest, it no longer needs to be palatable to the male gaze.