"The veil denies men their usual privilege of discerning whomever they desire. By default, the women are in command. The female scrutinises the male. Her gaze from behind the anonymity of her face veil, or niqab, is a kind of surveillance that casts her in the dominant position," says Pakistani author Maliha Masood of the niqab.
It's a powerful description of a garment frequently associated with patriarchy and repressiveness in the West. However, niqabs can embody a spirit of fierce feminism, as shown in the provocative Pakistani web series, Churails, which was released in August and quickly went viral.
Written and directed by Asim Abbasi, the Zee5 show stars Sarwat Gilani, Yasra Rizvi, Nimra Bucha and Mehar Bano in lead roles, and tells the story of a band of women taking on Pakistani patriarchy headfirst.
The Urdu word "churail" translates to hag or witch, but in the series, it's the name chosen by a group of women from diverse backgrounds and social classes who come together and form a secret detective agency to save other women from patriarchal injustices. They open a modest fashion boutique called "Halal Designs" as a front for their agency, and while running their vigilante missions, they wear colourful niqabs.
"The whole idea of Churails was based around subversion, and how you subvert something that is rife with negative connotations, take ownership of it and give it a positive spin," Abbasi tells The National. "The idea of the clothing store cover came from one of the central themes of Churails, which is a woman's autonomy over her body and her lack of the autonomy over that body in a society that is mainly made up of men, who are in positions of power and dictate what a woman can and cannot wear."
Niqabs, often regarded as “Islamic” garments, are worn by a minority group of women in Pakistan, and while there are varying opinions and debates about face veils even within the Muslim community, niqabs are cultural garments imported from the Middle East, rather than historically rooted South Asian attire. In some patriarchal families, they are enforced upon women, but in other cases, they are willingly worn as a symbol of religious conviction.
“In many ways, they are a symbol of respect and femininity in our society,” says Samiya Ansari, the show’s costume designer. “I wanted to keep it simple yet bold, and respect the silhouette and style, while paying homage to all the women who wear burqas and niqabs on the daily. It was challenging because I’ve never dealt with niqabs personally and had to learn the different ways of tying them.”
A fashion and celebrity stylist, wardrobe designer and former style blogger, Ansari’s forte is high fashion and elegant evening wear, and she says she had never given much thought to face veils before this project. “It was just a way of life that many people had chosen for themselves and I always thought it’s a matter of choice – as long as it’s not forced upon someone, which I understand in many cases, it is, in our culture,” she says.
Abbasi says it was important to highlight the niqab as a symbol of choice and freedom, rather than oppression. "The idea of autonomy and free will is very important here; these women choose. If you choose to use an item of clothing that works for you then you should be allowed to use it as you deem fit. And if it does not work for you then no man should be telling you that you should be wearing it," he says.
Throughout the show, niqabs are instrumental in protecting the anonymity of the Churails as they lead their missions – from threatening an abusive husband to saving a member of their clan from a forced marriage. And, to keep the costumes captivating even while faces are covered, colour plays a vital role. “We all wanted them to have an individual aesthetic on the camera, because you’re only seeing their eyes – if they were all in black it would have been very hard to decipher them, and black on camera would become very dull for an extended period of time,” explains Abbasi. “Samiya was very keen on choosing those colours and giving each woman a standout piece.”
From Bano's character, Zubeida, a sparky teenage boxer, to the snobbish event planner Jugnu, played by Rizvi, each role was complex and layered, and the attire was key to forming their on-screen identities. "The colours had to be bold, bright and vibrant, just like the women donning them," says Ansari.
“They stood out from miles away, and that is empowering enough when you are running top-secret missions to save and give strength to other ladies, plus you are out in the open, willing to be seen. It also showed that they aren’t doing something they’re guilty about, but rather, very proud of.”
One of the most powerful scenes of the series is when the Churails line up outside of their store, protecting their business from a throng of angry male protesters. “That one image was the manifestation of everything, when they are standing outside of Halal Designs, and forming that wall, saying, ‘We are going to protect our home.’ For me, that was the culmination of sisterhood in a society that is so deeply patriarchal – one way of dealing with it is bonding together and finding strength in numbers, which is what these women do,” says Abbasi.
While Muslim women's dress codes can make for sensitive topics, the makers of Churails by no means disparaged niqabs – on the contrary, the garments are celebrated throughout. "I hope that people who see the show will realise that we were using it outside the parameters of that religious conversation, and that the idea of taking the niqab and taking ownership of it did not stem from a disrespectful place at all," says Abbasi.
Often stereotyped as garments that hide women from society and prohibit their participation in the public spheres, throughout Churails, the colourful niqabs serve as a reminder that symbols of modest fashion – including face veils, in no way restrict women from being empowered heroes and change-makers.