21 September 2011

Dressing Appropriately (or Not) in Pakistan

Photo from Doug K of Sky
all rights reserved
The slutwalk movement began in April 2011 when a Toronto police officer suggested that to remain safe "women should avoid dressing like sluts1" and even as recently as 4 days ago an official in Jakarta said a similar thing2. I have mixed feelings on this matter.  On the one hand I agree that no woman "asks for it", but on the other I have wondered what some women were thinking based on how they were dressed.  And when you add "what is culturally acceptable" into the mix what is appropriate to wear becomes a very subjective question.

As I walked down the streets of Chilas, a town on the KKH, my companion kept on remarking on how much attention I was attracting from the men (there were no women to be seen).  I wasn't, by western standards anyway, showing much skin, just my arms and my head were uncovered and my shirt could be referred to as figure hugging, but in comparison to the attire worn by the local women it was extremely revealing.  It brought to mind a question that I'd been pondering since as early as packing for the trip - how should I dress?  I was well aware that Pakistan was a Muslim country and therefore I should dress conservatively, but how conservatively - okay, no strappy dresses, but are short sleeves okay?  While I was trekking on the glacier I was fully covered - even camouflaged with the scenery (can you spot me in the landscape above?) - either as protection from the cold or the sun, but once we'd finished trekking, or during an impromptu game of frisbee and rocket ball (at the same time!) I was tired of being completely covered from head to toe and wondered if I could "show a little skin" without being disrespectful of the local culture and being thought of as a "slut"?

But as I also experienced, sometimes behaving in a way that is acceptable to the culture makes the people more open to your presence.  One of the things that struck me on the trip was how little I saw of the women.  All along the roads you could see the men, but unless we happened to pass by a field in which the women were working I rarely saw them.  From Askole we took a short walk to the village of Hushe (made famous by Greg Mortensen in his book Three Cups of Tea) and visited the school there.  As we arrived the boys of the village rushed out to meet us and show us, but the girls and women were nowhere to be seen.  I had picked up a local woman's outfit in Skardu (Salwar kameez) and was wearing it along with my scarf.  When I tried to approach the girls they ran, so I thought that covering my head may make me less threatening and proceeded to do so.  In trying to forge a connection with the children I wandered off in the opposite direction hoping they'd be intrigued and come after me - which didn't work - and heard voices from within one of the buildings calling me.  When I turned and looked there were some women waving at me from the window.  I waved and smiled back and a while later they came out and I was allowed to take the picture above.  I believe that my willingness to cover my hair and dress in local costume made them feel safe enough to reach out and make a connection.  Unfortunately I didn't manage to win-over the little girls before we had to leave.

So how should one (a woman) dress when traveling in a way more conservative environment than one's home?  I'm not sure what the answer is, but in my mind it is important to be true to myself, while still taking into account the sensibilities of the people around me.  I'm not sure as a western woman that I could have avoided the comments (I'm assuming there were) and looks by dressing differently (short of wearing a chador and hiding myself completely) and have had to learn to ignore the looks and stares (sometimes leers) when I travel in parts of the world where the women are usually fully covered.  I asked my companion whether he thought I was reinforcing the so-called stereotypical-western-slut image or showing that it is possible for a woman to be respectfully dressed, but not fully covered.  His answer was the latter, but I don't know - and after some thought, don't really care as I feel I need to do what I feel comfortable with.

What are your thoughts on this topic?  Leave your them in the comment section below.


S said...

Having travelled pretty extensively through Muslim countries, then what you were wearing was not entirely inappropriate. What we've noticed is that bare arms (wife uses 3/4 sleeves), legs (but your trousers were fine), and a non-slim fit shirt work best. However, there's also a point to which this can be impractical. A headscarf always helps - and once you learn the various ways of knotting them, they can help in a multitude of situations! HTH

Kim said...

Thank you for your comment - and "slim-fit-shirt" was exactly the term I was looking for.

Raheel said...

I suppose, it's more about local customs and culture than religion or country itself. Like, your outfit in above photo is almost perfect for cities like Islamabad or Lahore. But it's different with a far-off village like Chilas or Hushe.

We should adapt as per customs and traditions. You see, one can't walk into a corporate meeting wearing a bikni or beach dress. And vice versa, of course.

Kim said...

@Raheel, thank you for your feedback and I agree that context is extremely important in deciding what to wear.