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The fashion of poverty

By Dr M.S. Jillani

As anybody could guess, Prime Minister’s directive to discourage fashion shows not in consonance with Islamic values, Pakistani culture and heritage and norms of decency, has fomented a debate — open as well as covert. Religious-minded and conservative persons are praising the step with enthusiasm and fervour. Those criticising the directive are a small minority of those who like themselves to be called liberal, enlightened and progressive. But there is a huge number of the middle class persons who indulge in the trappings of modern Western life yet they are traditional at heart and faithfully follow Islamic rituals. They turn very strict once their daughters reach the college going age. So, the opposition to restrictions on a practice common in westernised countries will be there and will be quite virile as its strength would come from some of the most influential drawing rooms of the country besides from the developed world. However, one would hate to see the issue transfigure into another controversy between Islam and the ‘liberals’.

One found it rather strange, that until the time of writing these lines, nobody had mentioned the most serious aspect of the Directive. The Demonstration Effect of the display of riches through the glitter of such functions, sky-high prices of dresses and other wares, the type of crowd that attends these demonstrations — are a subject which should be examined in terms of our income as a nation and economic status of the vast majority of our population. Thirty three per cent of the population of Pakistan lives below the poverty line, and 66 per cent earns less than two dollars a day. Add to them those living at lower fringe of the middle class who are as vulnerable to poverty as those living under the poverty line. One is not a vigilante. One also would not venture to opine what is repugnant to Islam and what is appropriate or inappropriate. But anybody with a live conscience should feel ashamed of indulging in extravagance and ostentation while thirty five per cent of the population living in cities of Pakistan are dwelling in shanty towns and katchi abadis with no running water, electricity, road, school or health facility! How many girls in this society remain unmarried because their families cannot afford basic essentials? And here we go to demonstrate the flood of affluence and an ambience of indifference to what is happening in other parts of nation’s towns and villages!

Let us also blow the myth that there will be a popular uproar if the filthy rich of this society are not allowed to carry on with their activities. Figures for Pakistan’s income distribution, for 2000, show that 10 per cent richest persons of Pakistan receive 28.3 per cent of national income while the lowest 10 per cent receive only 3.7 per cent of national income. 65 per cent of population have income of less than $ 2 a day. Now how many of them would have the money to spend on clothes which least suit this climate or which cannot be worn in this society — not due to nudity but due to presence of others dressed in ordinary clothes. How many will have the money upward of the salary of a clerk in the government to waste on expensive hairdos, body lifts and expensive facials? How many have the resources to spare for foreign trips to shop in largest stores of the world while their relatives and town-people find it hard even to pay their utility bills? At the end of the day, it is a miniscule proportion of our urban society who indulge in vulgar display of their riches in immediate neighbourhood of some of the worst pockets of poverty? And who knows how many of the audience at these displays are there only as spectators who would not let girls of their families even attend such functions because they cannot afford to meet demands that follow attendance at such extravaganzas?

We, like all developing societies, suffer from the inability to coordinate events and learn from history. The directive to desist the holding of fashion shows etc is a step in the sequence of directives about austerity issued by many governments of the past. It is unique because it will pinch only a selected class of society. The list may start with Mr Junejo’s ban on the use of large cars by government officials. One-dish marriage feasts order promulgated by Mr Shahbaz Sharif in the Punjab was a significant measure towards austerity. Ban on dowry in Mr Ayub Khan’s family laws and the renewed emphasis on it by a vocal CSO of Islamabad was a significant step towards simplicity and social reform. More recently, the ban on dancing in girls’ schools and colleges in the

Punjab was a step in the same direction except that it had moral and religious overtones. The initiative of Sindh Assembly against Karo-Kari, child marriages in lieu of family feuds, and the decisions of tribal elders to commit rape of women, etc, all reflect the urge to remove injustice and inequality from society. It means the urge for egalitarianism does exist in society.

There are, however, two aspects of this urge. First: None of these measures succeeded in the real sense. The major hindrance was the resistance and indifference of the elite, the super-rich and those in power. Every federal and provincial government in Pakistan always had a strong presence of arrogant elements of society who took these restrictions as infringement of their freedom. Illiteracy, and the growing craze for wealth pushed justice and decency into the background. Since most of the anti-social and unjust activities are virtual money minting machines, more and more persons join the unholy alliance perpetuating the lifestyle inherited and acquired from the expensive and glamorous world of the West.

The branding of measures for the adoption of morality, simplicity, austerity as the way of the ‘Mullah’ - or more recently the Taliban — was inevitable. Islam is an advocate of egalitarianism and simplicity. Any economic and social action aimed at adopting these principles will be championed by the religious community. But it does not make them the product of the ‘Mullah mentality’. In the present day political scenario, this might be interpreted as a capitulation before the religious parties. One is not concerned with these guesses. The basic aim of society should be to stop vulgar display of riches and the social and economic arrogance irrespective of sponsors.

There are bound to be arguments about unemployment of people engaged in the fashion industry and the related paraphernalia. There also will be efforts to hawk fashion as an art form and a medium of expression. It shall also be argued that the displays in Pakistan are of the same genre as shows around the developed world. Further, that Pakistan would become an object of ridicule if ‘modern’ activities are banned in the country. Answers are simple. First, every occupation has a large number of persons working for it, though many of them are considered undesirable. Should they be allowed to continue only to ensure employment?

The present case is simpler: It is only a question of propriety and social desirability. Who has denied that fashion is an art form? But this country is not at a stage of displaying that art publicly. And it may not be in a position to do so ever, because it is still a developing country; and an Islamic country and Islam demands modesty and haya both from women and men. If somebody does not like it, they are at a wrong place. About the argument that fashion shows, dress shows, etc are a routine in the developed countries, let us remember that many more things happen in these lands which we cannot even imagine to do. Let them have their values, we have ours. The argument that many charitable organisations will die if such functions are banned does not hold. Why don’t they pioneer other activities which are moderate, acceptable and less irritating? There is no dearth of such initiatives in an entertainment-starved land.

Let us remember again that we are a country which still has to meet basic needs of its poor. Must we insult them by indecent display of the arrogance of wealth and power? It is not good for anybody!


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