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Dear Angelina Jolie…
Your head covering at the press conference reflected the assumption that Pakistani women in public spaces are or should be covered up like this. This is one of the fights we are fighting. Pictures like these in the media shape the image of Pakistan, says BEENA SARWAR. Pix: Angelina in Pakistan - 'dressed accordingly'
Posted/Updated Tuesday, Sep 14 10:59:06, 2010
                        Reprinted from Beena Sarwar’s blog
 
  
Posted on September 13, 2010
 
Okay, I know I’m going to get flak for this from Angelina lovers and those who may not get my point, but I think it’s an important point to make. It has nothing to do with floods or flood relief, but everything to do with Pakistan’s image, especially pertaining to women. So here goes… Something I wrote a few days ago:
 
Dear Angelina Jolie
 
Hello from Karachi. I truly admire your work, your compassion, your raising awareness about those less fortunate, around the world. It’s wonderful that you were able to come to Pakistan again and meet with the flood victims. Your voice will go a long way towards bringing their plight to front stage, where it needs to be.
 
What I say next should not be taken personally. I am speaking as a woman who lives in one of the most misunderstood and maligned nations of the world. We, the women of Pakistan, have had to fight long and hard for our rights – and we continue to do so. One of the fights we are still fighting is the right to dress as we choose.
 
Most of us stay within the widely accepted cultural constraints. This means dressing modestly but by no means draping voluminous chaddars or dupattas over our heads at all times. This (diversity of dress) is not an issue for rural women, such as the flood victims you met. Most wear traditional clothes – kurta (long tunic) over a shalwar (baggy trousers), with a dupatta (large scarf) covering their heads and bosoms. They often cover their faces before outsiders.
 
In the cities, there is more variety. Women in public wear kurtas over jeans, over shalwars, over loose or skinny trousers. Some wear t-shirts or other western-style shirts. Many don’t always don a dupatta, even in public. That’s acceptable too. We’d like to keep it that way. (A good background read here would be an essay in the monthly magazine Newsline some time back titled Will the Real Pakistani Woman Please Stand up, by the award winning journalist Shimaila Matri Dawood)
 
Why women’s attire is a political issue has to do with how religion has been misused for political purposes in Pakistan.
 
Women’s clothing became a political issue here during the dark years of Gen. Ziaul Haq, who used Islam as a tool for political purposes. His media policy getting Pakistan Television (the only TV channel at the time) to ensure that women on screen covered their heads at all times (even during TV dramas when sleeping or drowning or whatever. There were other bizarre rules so that viewers wouldn’t get the ‘wrong idea’, like men and women having to leave the screen from different exits and ensuring someone else was on screen in case of unmarried couples. I know, crazy. But we’ve lived through all this and more. Here’s something I wrote last year about the repercussions of such policies, ‘Ongoing struggle’).
 
 One television news anchor resigned rather than comply. Some actresses refused to take on roles in which they had to wear dupattas unnecessarily. Not because they were against women covering their heads if they chose, but in protest at their apparel being dictated to.
 
You may have guessed by now how this relates to you. When you came to Pakistan to raise awareness for flood relief, we saw you covered in a voluminous black dupatta. This makes sense when you are out in the field, where all the women have their heads covered. Understandably, you want to fit in and make them feel at ease.
But I wondered why you felt the need to have your head covered at a press conference on Sept 7  (the one you wore on the following day, Sept 8, was less heavy).
 
If you feel the need to cover up, that is your prerogative and right. Why it bothers me though is because it is an indicator of how the world sees us. Your head covering at the press conference reflected the assumption that Pakistani women in public spaces are or should be covered up like this. This is one of the fights we are fighting.
 
Here’s the caption to a photos of you with women flood victims: “Angelina dressed accordingly to meet with people who are affected by the damage….”
 
Dressed accordingly. Many people admire you for ‘respecting our culture’ as they put it – even if they themselves hardly ever dress like that.
 
Our late former prime minister Benazir Bhutto also began covering up (and carrying prayer beads) after she entered politics. Many women felt betrayed who had fought against Gen. Zia’s media policies that allowed women to be visible in the public sphere only if they conformed to certain norms, defined by the conservative lobby.
 
Benazir felt the need to be accepted by that conservative lobby. But you’re not a politician. You’re an actress. The world has seen you in very different, far more revealing attire in your movies, and in photographs. We appreciate that you respect our culture and dress ‘accordingly’ when you are here, but I just wanted you to be aware that you really don’t need to be quite so draped up, and especially not during press conferences. There are many women journalists in Pakistan out in the field, working alongside men. Most don’t conform to the most conservative stereotypes.
 
It was nice to see you with our prime minister the following day, looking ‘regular’.
 
Thanks for listening.
 
Beena Sarwar
 
 
Beena Sarwar is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Karachi
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