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Dressing to Keep from Disappearing: Kalasha women’s costumes

In May 2013, I spent five days in the Kalash Valleys, North West Pakistan. I had been to visit the Kalasha several times before, both to conduct research and to keep up with friends I made there.

This time I had something particular in mind: to collect examples of the striking costume which Kalasha women wear and to try to find out why Kalasha women make such distinctive clothes.

The Kalasha are the last followers of a pre-Islamic religion which was practiced across much of the Hindu Kush mountain range. Their faith has no canonical texts, it is defined instead by the landscape which the Kalasha live in and the ceremonies, rites, taboos and festivals that they observe.

Accurate population statistics regarding the Kalasha are difficult to ascertain, but it is probable that they number between 3,000 and 4,000. Although the Kalasha sense that their population is slowly growing, most Kalasha fear that their culture may not survive into the future. Every year Kalasha men and women leave their faith and convert to Islam.

The Kalasha's acute awareness of their vulnerability means that they practice some aspects of their culture with particular devotion. Those things which make the Kalasha different from the people around them have become sacrosanct. To neglect them is to begin the process of Kalasha culture sliding into oblivion.

Special codes of conduct which help to separate pure and impure are carefully followed. Seasonal festivals are attended and specific songs sung and dances danced. Major life events like coming of age, marriage and death are marked with sacrifices and rituals. Recently, a special Kalasha school syllabus has been developed and implemented with impressive energy and devotion. The Kalasha language has been coded with a script so that it may be enshrined, forever, in text. Into all these things and many more the Kalasha pour their energy; bulwarks against the world surrounding them.

However, for an outsider visiting the Kalasha for the first time none of the above are immediately obvious. When you are new to the Kalasha what really strikes you are their women.

In the areas around the Kalash Valleys, it is rare to see women in a busy place. However, this is not the case with the Kalasha. Kalasha women observe their own special restrictions, but they do not limit their movement in public. Furthermore, they make their presence felt with costumes which demand admiration and attention. The contrast is marked, when entering the Kalash Valleys one passes from a landscape populated by men into a world where women dominate the topography, eclipsing their more humbly attired menfolk.

Filming in the Kalash Valleys

My trip this May corresponded with the spring festival of Zoshi. A major constituent of Zoshi are group rituals where often over one hundred men and women link arms in prolonged dances. The spectacle of these dances is the single greatest draw for tourists visiting the Kalasha.

Zoshi in 2013 was a bumper event for regional tourism, the security situation was better than in previous years and domestic tourists - as well as the odd foreign one - were present in considerable numbers. The army and the police were also out in force. A necessary precaution with Taliban units only a few hours away across the Afghan border.

This double load of outsiders made many of the Kalasha I spoke to feel uncomfortable.

For Kalasha women, Zoshi is a time to be seen. The dresses on display are often their owner's finest, embroidered with the latest and most experimental designs. Young women in particular try their best to look wonderful since Zoshi is a time when unmarried men and women from different locales can meet. Yet coupled with the appreciative gaze of fellow Kalasha was the unwelcome gawping of visitors. Although all the tourists I spoke to expressed un-feigned admiration for Kalasha costume, their presence in such large numbers felt like a trespass on the festival.

For the first time in the Kalash Valleys, I saw women draw shawls over their costumes and faces to parry the stares and cameras of outsiders.

Several of the Kalasha I spoke to at Zoshi were critical of modern Kalasha costume. Traditional costumes consisted of a more modest headdress and a woollen dress, spun and woven in the home. Even the most elaborately embroidered modern dress, I was told, would take up a quarter of the time required to make a traditional dress. Furthermore, the constituents of modern dresses are globally available cotton-synthetic mixes and woollen yarns. Traditional dresses by contrast were of wool from the family flocks, dyed with walnuts from local trees.

Some of those I spoke to also took issue with the embroidery designs on modern dresses. I was told how inspiration for embroidery comes from the outside, from imported goods, trips to town, looking at magazines and the television. Also bemoaned were the rapidly changing fashions for different styles of embroidery and the tacit competition between women to embellish the finest dresses.

In the context of Zoshi, saturated by outsiders greedy for spectacle, dresses, like tourism had been cast by some as yet another deleterious manifestation of globalisation. One friend summarised it as follows, "In the past we were not know to the world... We [had simple clothes] to cover the body [from the sun] we were hard working... we were dancing and we had nothing to do with the world, but [we] were happy with [our] traditions".

Despite worrying about the 'Kalashaness' of modern dresses, no one I spoke to denied that they were fundamental to Kalasha culture. For me they remain an inspiring and a vigorously creative way of keeping a culture vital in a rapidly changing world. I understand concerns that in many ways they represent a move away from traditional Kalasha values.

But they also represent a way of being Kalasha which uses globally pervasive materials and designs to create a globally recognisable identity. The Kalasha in embracing the present and recasting it in their own form are insuring their survival far into the future.

Further information

  • Maggi, W. 2001 Our Women are Free: Gender and ethnicity in the Hindu Kush. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Parkes, P. 1983 Alliance and Elopement: Economy, social order and sexual antagonism among the Kalasha (Kalash Kafirs) of Chitral. Unpublished PhD, University of Oxford.