Dupattas, in my opinion, have always been a strange and cumbersome addition to a wardrobe. They have some uses—in a pinch, you can wipe your hands on it, use it as a blanket or a pillow, shield yourself from the elements. You can use a dupatta as a rope, a hammock for a baby or when slung around someone else’s waist, a dance prop if you are Govinda circa 1998. What a dupatta never does, contrary to popular opinion, is act as a force field between a woman and the Elements of Patriarchy. They don’t, for example, turn into snakes on demand and swallow lecherous men alive. Neither do they rear up into a wall of fabric that immediately forms a wall of starchy steel between you and your stalker. No, instead dupattas have an unfortunate tendency to catch fire from stoves or get tangled in motorcycle wheel spokes and strangle the owner.

How odd, you muse. If dupattas are useful for just about everything else other than protecting one’s “honour” and guaranteeing safe passage through the universe, then why are they considered to be the single most important piece of clothing a woman can ever possess? As far as accessories go, dupattas are ranked a hot first, followed by everything else—sonay ki churiyan, a diamond engagement ring, etc. Some might even say you’ll never get a diamond engagement ring without a dupatta. Astounding! But what dupattas can certainly do, without a doubt, is guarantee you entry into the Punjab Civil Secretariat. Of course, dupattas are also strictly gender exclusive, because women do not go around pinching anyone’s bottom or staring openly at men’s bodies, so men feel safe in public and generally do not require protection in the form of a magical 2.5 yards of cloth. Ergo men can freely enter the Secretariat, but not women. Unless you have a piece of cloth on your shoulder.

The guards at the Secretariat were keeping women out of the building because they weren’t wearing a dupatta. A woman made a video of her conversation with a particular protector of the public, who confidently told her a female minister had given a “verbal order” that no women without a dupatta could enter. This also escalated into covering your head, because there’s nothing a guard likes than to make your life as difficult as possible. Another woman took to Twitter to tell us about how a female guard wouldn’t accept just the dupatta, but told her to cover her head with it if she wanted to go into the Secretariat. Turns out that the minister gave no such orders, and yet a guard thought he was perfectly within reason to make up a lie using someone else’s name in order to obstruct the movement of citizens with appointments to meet their government representatives.

It says a lot about the atmosphere of an administration and society where people can impose their personal ideologies on women without so much as a by-your-leave. Because it’s a religious suggestion, one is robbed of any defensive leg to stand on, because the accuser always hides behind their false piety. Why should any woman have to cover their head entering a government building? Is it a mosque? Is the Punjab Secretariat now a place of worship, in which case why aren’t the men putting on a little namaz topi and why isn’t everyone taking their shoes off? Why should a woman have to adjust anything about her clothes in order to get on with her day? It is discrimination at best and a dangerous flashback of Zia-era politics at worst, when PTV broadcasters were required by law to cover their heads while delivering the khabarnama, lest their bouffants and deadpan delivery inflame the passions of the men (and some women?) watching.

It also begs the question: what kind of men are we surrounded by? If women have to perpetually be policed about the things they wear (or don’t), then one can assume that is because the average man is some kind of unmitigated predator whose fiendish desires cannot be controlled by the limits of civilisation. The level of hysteria surrounding women’s clothes indeed indicates that one is dealing with some Level 1 Villainy. And yet there are scores of perfectly normal men around us— the guard at your children’s school, the challi-wallah, the waiter at a restaurant, your brother, his best friend, the guy driving the car next to yours at a red light. Perhaps there is some beast lurking just beneath their surface, like a werewolf on a full moon, that bursts forth when you don’t wear a dupatta? Or maybe they are just civilised, normal men who won’t self-combust when the shadow of a woman crosses their path? Such a dilemma, honestly. And all for the sake of a piece of cloth, you can even “wear like a sash” if you like, as the Secretariat guard suggests cheerfully in the video, just as long as you have something. Who knew a dupatta, or a facsimile of it, could be better than a wreath of garlic and some silver bullets?


The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.