Political Influences on Sartorial Trends in Pakistani Television Drama
Political Influences on Sartorial Trends in Pakistani Television Drama

Disclaimer: All photos attached in the article are screenshots taken from drama videos available on YouTube until 2023. The screen grabs specific to the article’s theme result from a personal watch of important Pakistani dramatic works based on extensive research. The shots’ blurriness has been refined to the maximum possible effect by Habib-ur-Rehman. Lack of access to original images results from absence of digital archives, and red tapism. 

Frances Babbage may have termed “theatre” as political, but considering that the genre which both theatre and television usually cater to is drama, the quote can be tweaked, or expanded to bring into its ambit, the medium of televised stories as well. 

What can be a better proof of it than the fact that most of the television networks around the world have been launched by governments, their initial purpose also having been to send across the state’s messages to the public? 

“Historically, governments have relied on media to communicate with citizens, and stakeholders around the world, ensuring that they receive the information that will shape their day-to-day decisions, from what to buy, where to live, which school to attend to issues surrounding their health, safety and political views.” (Al Maheiri)

Pakistan is no exemption, for when General Ayub Khan, whose government is usually remembered for being the most progressive and at par with international standards in every field, launched PTV in 1964, he also expressed the main objective of doing so, which Dawn newspaper, back in the year, summarized in the following words:

“Inaugurating the pilot TV project at the newly constructed building of Radio Pakistan, Lahore, the President said in a country like Pakistan, where democracy was taking root, a close understanding between the people and the government was of immense importance.”

It is not difficult to understand that for a “close understanding between the people and the government”, television may not have been the only possible medium, especially with notable newspapers in print back in those times, and letter writing still much in vogue. More than a two-way communication meant to foster an understanding, it was the government’s creative way to impart to the masses what it thought was of “immense importance”. Ayub’s ideologies based on liberalism, thus, found a vent with the installation of television in homes, his outlook not remaining confined to news bulletins or advertisements, but also seeping into television dramas that got produced. 

It is not unknown that one of the major reasons why foreign delegations would frequently visit Pakistan in Ayub Khan’s era was not only joint work collaborations, but also the fact that they were openly provided all which they had access to in the west, be it night clubs, vine bars or five star hotels for their sojourns, the motive behind being to carve a liberal image of Pakistan in the eyes of the international community. 

“When Bhutto began talks with the leaders of the alliance, some of their demands included the closure of nightclubs and bars and a prohibition on the sale of alcoholic beverages. The Bhutto regime also cancelled its plans of launching a large casino in Karachi which was to be inaugurated in May 1977. The casino was largely financed by Tufail Shaikh, a Karachi-based businessman who had close links with the Ayub Khan regime (1958-69) and then with the Bhutto government.” (Paracha)

On national television, since the language had to be one which was comprehensible for the majority of the population, the visuals helped in promoting the government’s agenda, with the clothes taking the lead in helping the government show that Pakistanis’ dressing is not confined to Shalwar Kameez alone. One of the pioneers of Pakistani television drama, Ashfaq Ahmad wrote his series Aik Mohabbat Sau Afsanay during those years, which, in one of its many romantic scenes, shows the titular character of Qurutulain not only fearlessly sitting beside the canal with her love-interest, but also wearing a smart-fit, turtle-neck shirt along-with pants.

Clip from Ashfaq Ahmed's "Qurutulain" from the series Aik Mohabbat Sau Afsaane

Although it was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who ruled as the Prime Minister from 1973 onwards, the sartorial styles continued to remain the same, most probably owing to Bhutto’s focus being more on matters other than television and film. In majority of the drama serials produced under his regime, which also marked the colouring of Pakistan Television, sleeveless saris and dupatta-less shirts were a common practice. Released somewhere around 1975 was Ya Naseeb Clinic written by Amjad Islam Amjad, a socio-comic drama serial, many scenes of which shows Samina Ahmed in dresses not many Pakistanis would approve of even today. 

Samina Ahmed in Amjad Islam Amjad's Ya Nasib Clinic

Bhutto’s era also marked popular playwright Haseena Moin’s shift towards serious dramas, the first one being Parchaiyaan which got released in 1976. Countless sequences from the serial are characterized by quite a liberal wardrobe. It is also interesting to note how in Parchaiyaan, sleeveless dresses are worn by characters who are shown as being senior, reflecting the idea that their ideologies date back to the times when liberalism set in Pakistan with the arrival of Ayub Khan. More than Sahira Kazmi who is still remembered for being the most rebellious of Pakistani actresses, it is Begum Khursheed Mirza, Azra Sherwani and other senior actresses who are observed wearing sleeveless clothes.

Sahira Kazmi in Haseena Moin's Parchaiyaan
Sahira Kazmi in Haseena Moin's Parchaiyaan, wearing a deep neck, smart-fit shirt
Begum Khursheed Mirza in Parchaiyaan, wearing a sleeveless Sari

Senior women adhering to their clothing styles from Ayub Khan’s era and young girls gradually coming under the influence of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (whose inclination towards religion and its application to the society began after 1974) is also reflected in another drama serial by Haseena Moin, Bandish, which got released in the late 1970s, showing an older woman again, having donned a short bloused, sleeveless sari while the young girl in comparison is observed wearing a simple shirt.

However, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s attempts at applying the principles of Islam were not as harsh as those of Zia ul Haq, who took over the government of Pakistan as its president in 1977 and whose enforcement of Sharia laws under the banner of his “Islamization” created visible ripples even in dramatic productions. Seminal dramatic works from Zia ul Haq’s era such as Ehsas, Ankahi, Tanhaiyaan and Dhoop Kinare belonging to the mid-80s may not depict the very strict rules regarding dressing which characterized some Pakistani dramas from the late 80s and early 90s, but definitely showed a deviation from the way actresses dressed up in late 70s and early 80s. The clothing style in these serials was a representation of a gradual or a semi-acceptance of Zia ul Haq’s theocratic rule, if not a complete obedience of it.

Marina Khan in 1986 drama Ehsas, wrapped up in a shawl up till her neck

Then came Zia ul Haq’s dupatta policy in the late 80s, asking females all over the showbiz industry to cover their heads while on screen, in order to inculcate the same among masses by using television as the medium. This produced, although unintentionally, some of the funniest scenes in Pakistani dramas revolving around some of the most serious issues of the society. Interestingly, even years after Zia ul Haq’s government came to an end in 1988, the dupatta policy continued to be applied in Pakistani drama serials, extending itself until almost 1993, as Nawaz’s government which ruled from 1990 to 1993 turned out to be equally conservative from its very inception, its very motive being to emerge as a right-wing party in opposition to Benazir Bhutto whose socialist democratic government remained in power only from 1988 to 1990. 

It is therefore that a lot of drama serials until 1993 religiously followed the dupatta policy, famous examples being Kamal Ahmad Rizvi’s Khoya Hua Admi, Haseena Moin’s Kasak and Fatima Surayya Bajiya’s Uroosa. Khoya Hua Admi, released around 1990, interestingly shows a wife taking care not to remove her dupatta despite her own husband being the only man in the house and that too at the time of night.

About the strict policies which women were made to follow by Zia ul Haq in the name of Islam, it is also told that in protest to the consistent belittling of the female gender during his tenure, “over 400 women signed a petition and marched towards the Lahore High court while burning their dupattas making it the first protest ever where the police used tear gas, charged at and arrested many from the group of women.” (“Past in Perspective”)

Notable Pakistani director Sahira Kazmi, a strongheaded woman in her own right, rebelled against the dupatta policy by signing out of a project called Kasak, which according to the playwright Haseena Moin, was scripted by her on Sahira Kazmi’s very demand, but the government not providing the leniency to remove the dupatta where required caused Sahira Kazmi to walk out of her role as a performer and rope in Rubina Ashraf instead, confining her own role to that of a director only. When Kasak finally got released in 1992, it showed, to the amusement of many, the female protagonist wearing a dupatta within the confines of her house, even while in the kitchen, despite being a single parent.

Rubina Ashraf in Kasak from year 1992, playing with her son while covered in a dupatta

Sahira Kazmi did use her liberty to some extent in her mini-serial Tum Se Kehna Tha released in 1995 on PTV, two years after Benazir Bhutto once again came into power to be replaced, however, by Nawaz Sharif yet again in 1997. This span of five years (1993 to 1997) produced some drama serials which made a second attempt at showing a little liberalism pertaining to dressing, albeit not completely or rebelliously deviating from PTV’s once strict policies, hence experimenting with the deviation by handing over cow-boy characters to female actresses and making them wear but baggy shirts and trousers. In Tum Se Kehna Tha, Marina Khan, otherwise found in shalwar kameez in all of her previous drama serials, can be observed wearing a loose pair of trousers along-with a floppy shirt throughout the project.

In another dramatic work titled Farar released around the same time, Huma Nawab can be seen wearing more or less the same kind of shirts as donned by Marina Khan in Tum Se Kehna Tha.

Huma Nawab in Farar released in 1996

“Wearing dupattas was compulsory. You could not “not” wear a dupatta, but we got away with Huma wearing pants and shirts, which was a little unusual for that time,” told Sania Saeed when asked about Huma Nawab’s clothing in Farar.

There was, however, a visible shift in the way actors dressed in serials with the coming of Pervez Musharraf who took over the country as a president in 1999 and who remains popular to date for giving a major boost to Pakistan’s fashion industry in the face of religious extremism, which he is known for curbing to a large extent. With the fashion industry of Pakistan reaching newer heights in his tenure, the drama industry also began to ease a little on dressing, starting with half-sleeves, tight-fitting shirts on television and gradually stretching the liberty to sleeveless, and at times, even backless and off-shoulder dresses later on. 

Multiple drama serials from the late 1990s and early 2000s including Manzilein and Thori Khushi Thora Ghum, all produced during the government of General Pervez Musharraf, showed female actresses taking their liberty with dressing.

Nadia Khan in Manzilein released in 1998

It can be well argued that Manzilein, Thori Khushi Thora Ghum and Aandhi were shot outside Pakistan and therefore definitely demanded that pants and shirts be worn. With that, this also needs to be kept in mind that stories taking place outside Pakistan, based on the lives of Pakistani expatriates settled abroad were experimented with for the very first time in the tenure of Musharraf, and therefore expanded the margins for dressing as well, in accordance with those stories. A second response to this argument can be the 2002 and 2003 drama serials Chandni Raatein and Tere Siwa, shot entirely in Pakistan yet giving their characters the freedom to wear tight-knitted shirts and pants.

Aaminah Haq in Chandni Raatein

Saba Hameed in Tere Siwa

What makes Tere Siwa even a better example of a generally liberal Pakistani society back then is the fact that the dresses what one would call “modern” back in those days are worn freely by even the senior actresses in the serial, be it Saba Hameed or Rubina Ashraf, the latter being the director of the serial as well. 

Before we move on towards a complete disapproval of shalwar kameez or socially accepted clothing styles in Pakistani drama serials, particularly those produced by private channels, the 2005 PTV production called Masuri needs to be mentioned, which showed Sadia Imam wearing a sleeveless shirt along-with a skirt in many of its scenes, in a way hinting at the inception of ultra-modern dresses in Pakistani drama serials, for what followed from 2007 were choices of dressing deemed too bold, and even “vulgar” by the majority of the Pakistani society.

A year before Musharraf resigned, his encouraging attitude towards private productions bore multiple fruits of liberty in the Pakistani drama industry, churning out drama serials which presented Pakistani actresses in dresses never seen before on television. HUM TV’s Man o Salwa and Najia, both released in 2007, are but only a few examples from a long list of Pakistani drama serials which were progressing in terms of both content and clothing back then. Resham in Man o Salwa represented quite realistically the lifestyles of models at that point in time, well in contrast with the 1990s’ PTV drama Nijaat which showed an aspirant model showing all her skills in but a shalwar kameez.

Resham in Man o Salwa
Figure 18. Sadia Imam in Masuri released in 2005

Although Musharraf resigned in 2008, replaced by Asif Ali Zardari in presidency, Pakistani dramatic productions did not shy away from experimenting with ultra-modern clothing, the reason being PPP’s equal interest in artistic and literary activities, giving channels a further push to freely choose dresses in accordance with the characters’ demands instead of mulling things over, as was the case with the directors and producers working in the early 1990s. Ishq Junoon Deewangi is a fine example of it, showing Humaima Malick playing the role of a dancer in a film and not hesitating to wear an off-shoulder dress to aid her in her flexible dance movements. The same goes for GEO TV’s Ladies Park, in which Ayesha Omar’s clothing complemented well her character of a seductress. It can also be said that PPP, although this time headed by Asif Ali Zardari, made the audiences recall the days of liberalism the kind of which was there at the time of Benazir Bhutto. All the same, it is also believed that Asif Ali Zardari’s keen and shrewd interest in politics and a casual attitude towards actors’ clothing gave many directors a chance to take all kinds of liberties, hence resulting in the dramatic productions mentioned above.

Humaima Malick in Ishq Junoon Deewangi released in 2009

However, this continued only until 2013, the year which marked Nawaz Sharif’s return to politics as the Prime Minister. The conservatism and religiousness which had always been a part and parcel of his governance gained further momentum with the rise of another religious party during his tenure; Tehreek e Labbaik in 2015, as a result of which religiousness gained as much strength in the country as in the time of General Zia ul Haq. Interestingly, the very year marked the release of multiple dramas which gave a rise to the good woman – bad woman binary, emerging from the patriarchal views held by both the parties, the rulers of which together and openly infused these ideas into the society. The ideas unfolded themselves on the television screen through the showing of “evil woman” in pants and shirts and the “pious woman” in dupattas and shawls. Many of Umera Ahmad’s dramas  including the highly popular Zindagi Gulzar Hai released between 2013 and 2018 reminded people of the days of Uroosa and Kasak and also took them by surprise owing to the fact that these were penned by the same writer whose Man o Salwa got released in the reign of Pervez Musharraf.

Sanam Saeed in Zindagi Gulzar Hai released in 2013

Similar trends continued in the government of Imran Khan who came to power in 2018 and whose utopian idea of Pakistan was the one based on the principles of “Riyasat e Madina”. With the youngsters forming a larger part of Khan’s fan-following, television drama saw an up-rise in the characters of young girls going one step ahead to practice and promote Islamic values by donning headscarves even within the confines of their homes. GEO TV’s Fasiq released in 2021 is a fine example of it, showing Sehar Khan covered in a Hijab throughout the entire serial. Other than this, a lot of other serials like O Rang Reza, Alif Allah Aur Insan and Alif dealt with the processes of personality transformations culminating in mystical positions attained by girls and boys earlier immersed in worldly pursuits, which would interestingly end with most of them deciding to adopt a simple lifestyle marked by loose, comfortable and socially appropriate clothes, specifically Shalwar Kameez. 

The case is the same with contemporary Pakistani drama which is running under the rule of Nawaz Sharif’s brother, Shehbaz Sharif, below being a still from a HUM TV drama serial from last year showing two women not compromising on their dressing values despite being present at a lavish wedding.

A wedding scene from drama serial Antul Hayat released in 2022

It won’t be wrong to say that government-induced ideas have seeped into contemporary Pakistani drama in a way that it is very much reflective of the kind of society that has developed under various governments deciding what appropriate clothing is. The ever-widening gap between two kinds of mindset in the country, interestingly easily manifested through each’s clothing style, is a result of the state’s consistent attempts at linking clothing with values, which is represented in Pakistani dramas in the manner that the “less pious” and wayward women are shown without headscarves, which are always there on the heads of the “good women” in our dramatic productions today. It can be said that things have come full circle, with the governments in the initial days of television “telling” through dramas what to wear, and the dramas now strictly following the binary that has formed with every government’s different take on clothing and Pakistan’s collective morality. The dramas sadly propagate open judgments which are to be made based on the clothes the characters are wearing, which is no different from what Pakistanis practice in their daily lives. 

A much-needed debate among our drama makers is due, deciding on how it is essential to take modern dramas, which are now available on more than one platform, as influential forces to initiate a conversation which may blur the class boundaries that have been solidified based on religious values that are or are not practiced, which in turn are grounded in clothing styles that are opted. These very dramas can be used to raise a question on whether the woman wearing pants and shirts is actually that bad, and the woman wearing shalwar kameez that good.


  1. Eid AlMaheiri, Maryam. “A strong relationship between media and government is vital.” The National, https://www.thenationalnews.com/opinion/comment/a-strong-relationship-between-media-and-government-is-vital-1.825297
  2. Paracha, Nadeem F. “The curious history of prohibition (and alcohol consumption in Pakistan)”, Scroll.in, 19 Jun 2015, https://scroll.in/article/883099/the-curious-history-of-prohibition-and-alcohol-consumption-in-pakistan
  3. “Past in Perspective”, The Nation, 12 Jan 2017, https://www.nation.com.pk/12-Jan-2017/past-in-perspective


Muhammad Ali is a lecturer in English at Government College University, Lahore. An M.Phil graduate, his interest areas include classic and contemporary Pakistani drama, Literary Environmental Studies and Partition novel. He has also written for various local newspapers including Daily Times, The Friday Times, The Nation and The News. His research work on Sahira Kazmi’s “Zaib un Nisa” which was a part of his Honours thesis has been presented on various platforms including Olomopolo Media and UMT’s conference on the Contemporary Trends in Linguistic and Literary Research. Muhammad Ali also acts as a screenplay translator for the OTT platform ZEE5 and runs a printing press in Lahore by the name of Fine Books Printers.

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