The many reasons for covering up in Pakistan

Letter from Karachi: In Pakistan, you can tell a lot by looking at a woman's sleeves

Letter from Karachi: In Pakistan, you can tell a lot by looking at a woman's sleeves. If they're short and tight, she's likely to be less conservative. If they're long, black and loose-fitting to the wrist, often she'll have her face covered too. Add a bit of transparent, silky material with slits or gash sleeves, she's probably more daring. As for sleeveless tops - you won't see them.

As an Irishwoman in Karachi, it is hard to get your head around the dress code. Clothing is like a complex set of signals which become increasingly difficult to decipher. How tightly a woman wears her headscarf and whether or not she fastens it below her chin is no small detail. Why some women wear a burka and others a scarf around their shoulders can depend on anything from family pressures, financial status or religious devotion.

In an Islamic country, where painting your toenails or even wearing make-up has traditionally been frowned upon, it is first impressions that count.

Even Pakistanis admit it is difficult to understand the clothing issue.


A popular magazine recently put three women on its cover: one in a burka, one as a call centre operator and the other a scantily clad model. "Will the real Pakistani woman please stand up?" ran the headline.

By examining how women are challenging traditional roles, the article outlined how society is coming to terms with a changing female identity. While supermodel Iraj has rejected customs forcing her to cover up, the woman working as a call centre operator has challenged the stigma attached to working outside the home.

Even though fundamentalist icon Farhat Hashmi wears a burka, her success as a lecturer and author has made her a role model for many women.

"Wearing a burka can be handy when avoiding your in-laws," says Sonya, a 23-year-old mother.

Abandoned by her husband - who left her for another woman - Sonya has good reason for keeping a low profile. Her husband refuses to sign the required documents to allow her and their six-year-old daughter to return to Sonya's family in Saudi Arabia.

As a result, she is stranded in Pakistan, a country that has little sympathy for the single mother. While you rarely hear of women remarrying, polygamy is permitted for a man if a wife is sterile, insane or "unfit for conjugal relations".

The gender divide can be seen almost everywhere in Karachi.

Arriving in the airport, a large sign for "unaccompanied women and children" hangs above one of the exits. On the buses, women sit at the front, bars separating them from the men at the back. Women in burkas are often seen riding side-saddle on motorbikes, sometimes with a child in their laps.

You rarely spot a woman driving or walking alone. At an anniversary party in a wealthy side of town, elderly men and women were seated separately.

Various women's groups, however, are working to reverse age-old attitudes towards women.

Shirkat Gah, based in Karachi, highlights the prevalence of domestic violence in Pakistan, where one-third of women are illiterate.

A theatrical group raises awareness on "honour killings" - when a woman is murdered, usually by a brother or husband, for "dishonouring" her family. In 2002, 29 women were killed this way, often because they were suspected of having affairs or if in-laws did not receive enough dowry. Although these killings have been banned, local councillors often turn a blind eye.

Muktar Mai, who was gang-raped in 2002 allegedly on order from a tribal council to punish a crime attributed to her brother, has become an icon for the women's lobby in her battle for justice.

The acquittal of five of the six men convicted of her rape sparked protests and widespread condemnation around Pakistan and, after appeals to President Pervez Musharraf, the men were rearrested and await further hearing.

In the Punjab region, where Mai is from, 150 rapes have taken place over the past six months, according to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Few, if any of these victims will take their case to court.

Human rights groups are pushing for a review of the Hudood Ordinance, which in the case of rape states that a woman is required to have statements from up to four male witnesses; if her case fails, however, she may be charged with adultery and stoned.

A friend in Karachi lent me a traditional shalwar suit, a long tunic top with baggy pants and a scarf to cover my head in public. Even then, there was no avoiding the hard stares from men almost everywhere I went or the men brushing past, just a little too close. Despite the heat, I might have been better off wearing a burka.

Sorcha Hamilton

Sorcha Hamilton

Sorcha Hamilton is an Irish Times journalist