Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Headturner in a headscarf…

Mehmal Sarfraz
Mehmal Sarfraz is my reason to believe that hijab can be a liberating experience for women too!

We met Mehmal a few months after we moved to Pakistan. I liked the way she held her own in a roomful of men and didn’t keep pulling at her headscarf self-consciously.

The only time I have seen Mehmal without her trademark scarf is in a Facebook picture where she poses in a rainbow wig grinning ear-to-ear: “This is why I cover my head!”   

When we were to meet Mehmal in Lahore, her hometown, I decided to carry my safed malmal ka dupatta along – just in case! Much like a famous Hermes scarf-wearer, my dupatta kept sliding off my head and I kept tugging at it as our very gracious hostess showed us her town.

By the time she dropped us back it was past midnight and as I tucked in I concluded that hijab need not be a restraining force.

The next day when Mehmal came to pick us up I did not bother with my dupatta. There was no point faking it. Also, by then, I was sure that she wouldn’t have been impressed this way or that.

Having known Mehmal for about four years, I am certain that a hijab/headscarf is not necessarily stifling. However, I am not so sure if a hijab/headscarf serves its other more popular and basic function – distracting the male gaze – just as well.

I think not – in Mehmal’s case, at least. Blame it on her beauty or her brains the scarf makes her more visible than many non-hijabi women and, if I may say so, a piece de resistance!

What say Mehmal?


  1. Hi,

    Another nice post, but one that can invoke many replies and emotions. Most women now only wear the dupatta as a part of their shalwar kameez, and it only goes on the head when an elder enters the room or when praying or entering shrines/Gurdwaras/Mandirs etc. (Hindu, Muslim and Sikh women all wear this especially if they are Punjabi/Sindhi at least in Pakistan)

    The dupatta is a very Pakistani peice of cloth and i prefer it to the hijab. You can be Muslim and cover your hair in our own way without having to wear a hijab which is a foreign intrusion into our culture like jeans etc. My gripe is when people think that the dupatta is no longer good enough or 'Islamic' enough and start going fundo and vice versa with the shalwar wrt jeans!

    If it has been good for countless women and generations who are equally aware of their faith and religious obligations why is it no longer good enough now?

    I admire those women who remain true to their beliefs AND indigenous culture. I supoose this can be seen as an extension of the Khuda Hafiz/Allah Hafiz debate, and i am firmly in the Khuda Hafiz/Rabb Rakha camp.

    I remember when i was younger i seen a member of PIA at their check in desk. The pretty girl wore a green Kashmiri style head covering under her Dupatta that all PIA lady staff wear as part of their uniform. This was in the days when Pak wasn't as outwardly religious as today, i remember looking at her and thinking that i respect her very much, as she lived her religious beliefs of covering her hair completely yet she was still very Pakistani by wearing her dupatta one her head in the Pakistani way (which normally still leaves some hair to be seen). She appeared not as an Arab/Turk/Iranian but as unmistakingly Pakistani.

    And for me that is the crux of the matter. We should always be Pakistani and not try to appear to be anything else such as Arab/Turk/Iranian, we never came from there we are people of the Indus with at least 5000 years of civilisational history. We are an Indic people who now happen to be Muslim in our own way. We may share a small percentage of our culture with countries to our west but not our DNA, we have our own distinct culture which is an amalgamation of Hindu and Muslim and evolved over hundreds years of interaction and living together, it is unique as is our dress, language and food. It would a shame to have this watered down by some boring homogenous preceived pan Islamic identity, whose main outward manifestation is in women's head covering.

    Okay rant over now!

    Rabb Rakha!


  2. A, thank you! And that was no rant :)

  3. a big thanks for this post! Really touched by it :-)

    A, I am not an Arabised-Pakistani and I wasn't forced to wear a hijaab either; I did it on my own. I wear a dupatta on my head too sometimes but frankly speaking it's a bit of a hassle as it keeps sliding so wearing a hijaab is much easier for me. I know that there are a lot of interpretations about modest dressing while not covering your head but that's open for debate and I made a choice about covering my hair. To each his/her own I guess :-)

  4. I am not for/against covering head, but I do agree with the point that it look neat compared to a dupatta cloth on the head. Although it makes me a bit irritated to see women who have started wearing abaya style long shirts and scarf just to imitate countries in the Arab peninsula. The ghairat brigade loves to appose so called Indian cultural infiltration in Pakistan (which btw doesn't make any sense because when I ask them to identify the difference in our culture from India, they have no answer to that other than some generic lecture on modesty). But the hypocrisy is that they don't mind arabic culture blatantly adopted by superficial pseudo-religious section of our country.


  5. hahaha, awesome.

    I have a feeling it will win Mehmal win a lot more fans (well deserved ones) across the border.

  6. Mehmal, pleasure :)

    Raza, a girl once shopped for an Abaya with me and then got it fitted, leaving me wondering if she would be able to breathe at all in that thing?!

    Tazeen, oh yes! and then all I would have to do is drop the 'M' word and get things done :)

  7. thought you might like this:

  8. Ha, you know I visited Iran once (almost 10 years now), and among the masses covered in black from head to toe - there were few stand outs(women) who wore a fitted version of what everyone else was wearing. It's basically the same flawed thinking which is neither here nor there. The smart ones do get it eventually, but that's not as common as you might want.