Much has been said and written about Pakhtun traditions. Some have been glorified while most berated – partly because they have been misunderstood and also because over time they have been imposed on the fairer gender of the society out of pure whim. The cultural significance of these customs and traditions has, hence, diminished in the background. One such instance involves the concept of “purdah” or “namus”.
Have you ever been to Peshawar Saddar? The shopping experience aside, if you look around you will find many Pakhtun women adorning beautiful embroidered shawls; in white, black and brown mostly. These are the traditional “parhunay” or “saa’dur” that we wear to cover ourselves when we go out. Like Ajrak in Sindh, “Parhunay” has become a central part of the standard Pakhtun dress code.
In a strictly Pakhtun society, “purdah” is of considerable importance owing to Islamic traditions on one hand and Pakhtunwali on the other. However, “parhunay” is considered a significant sign of egalitarianism in a Pakhtun society. Women from every class of the society are required to cover themselves when they go out, in more or less a similar attire, mostly because it is a cultural obligation rather than religious one.
While growing up, I saw most women in my family wear extremely pretty “parhunays”. The embroidery and colour varied according to occasion. A white one with small multi-coloured square pattern was usually specified for the market, a fancy version usually saved for visiting someone, yet other custom made shawls were given to a daughter’s in-laws as presents and souvenirs.
“Parhunay” or “saa’dur” accompanies a Pakhtun woman throughout her progression in life. A daughter embraces her first “parhunay” as an ornament while growing up , she is covered in it on her rasm-e-hina, draped in it during the baraat, it is kept safe to be passed on to her daughters and in some areas eventually it is also used to wrap the coffin of a woman.
Pakhtun men hold “Namus” – a principle of Pakhtunwali where they must defend the honour of a woman –in high regard. Perhaps, parhunay signifies that a woman needs to be protected and cherished during her life and accentuates the exalted status of a “Pakhtun” woman after her death. -
“Parhunays” also vary according to region and some even have a relevant history behind them. For instance, women in Swabi wear a “chail” which is usually green or white and has red polka dots on them. Hearsay is that the red polka dots signify the blood of martyrs in a war against Sikhs. Another account states that the stains represent the blood of a Pakhtun lady who was a victim of honour killing.
Women in Swat prefer a specific Swati embroidery done in either silk or cotton on their shawls’ borders. In Hazara, “parhunay” is mustard in colour with a sequined orange pattern. In olden times, the material of the drape was hand-woven and the dyes were natural. It was considered an art ; a form of expression. However with modern society on one end and the conservatism that has spread amongst pakhtun society, it remains to be seen whether the ‘parhunay’ will survive.
- Contributor 13 has written this exclusively for Qissa Khwani. She describes herself as a 'crazy wanderlust buried in a labyrinth of her grey matter.'