Elle India: October 17, 2018
I’m looking for a way to tell the story of Generation, a Pakistani ready-to-wear women’s clothing brand, that turns 35 years old this year, to you, a reader across the border in India who may never have heard of the company. How do you tell the story of a brand that is one of a handful to have survived for more than three decades here, its presence so indelible in the Pakistani retail landscape that scores of women know it by a misnomer – “Generations”, plural – that has been around for too long to correct now?
Perhaps the story starts in Lahore in 1983, when Generation was founded by Nosheen and Saad Rahman to cater to the needs of the urban Pakistani working woman. In February of that year, in the same city, an estimated 400 of these women gathered to protest against a series of laws passed since martial law was declared in the country, laws that said the testimony of two women would be equal to that of one man in court, and that required women who had been raped or sexually assaulted to provide four male witnesses to the crime or they could face prosecution for fornication or adultery. At the protest, the women set their dupattas alight. They were lathi-charged and teargased. And the poet Habib Jalib reportedly recited a verse composed on the spot: “We are not helpless or powerless anymore/We are not naïve and innocent anymore/We can shape our own destiny/We are no longer grateful for the writing on the wall dictating our fates.” That day was, as human rights activist and lawyer Hina Jilani noted, “really the start of the women’s movement in Pakistan.”
But Generation has been around for my whole life – I was born two years after the brand created the first concept of sizing in the country, churning out small, medium and large RTW cotton clothes in a market awash with polyester – and so I wonder if these histories, running parallel to and shaping the brand’s ideas on how a modern Pakistani woman should dress, are more important than my own encounters. Then I would start the story from the 1990s, when I snuck an ironed Generation dupatta, neatly folded into the smallest square possible, to a meeting with my friends. Pakistan now had its first female prime minister in Benazir Bhutto, martial law was over, and it had been years since institutions like the Council of Islamic Ideology had floated the idea that women should not be allowed to be heads of state or contest elections until the age of 50 (even then, only do so with their husband’s permission), years since female civil servants in the foreign service were recalled from all postings and female government employees were directed to cover themselves with the veil. I was too young to know that just a few years ago, there were stories of women slapped on the street by strange men for not having covered themselves appropriately. I only knew that many of my friends had suddenly begun to wear dupattas and that seemed to me the first badge of adulthood. But my mother did not care to prescribe dupattas or certain clothes for her daughters, especially if they only wore them to fit in.
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