Dress parity

October 25, 2020

Faysal Bank’s newly-adopted dress code raises new questions and reinforces some old narratives

Last month, B (who requested anonymity for fear of getting fired), a customer representative at one of Faysal Bank’s branches in Lahore, received a Rs 5,000 allowance to purchase a new uniform. She had to buy an abaya, a Middle Eastern dress adopted by Muslim women in many parts of the world. Faysal Islamic Bank has recently announced its policy to formally adopt an Islamic dress code for the staff. But, not all staff.

“We were told to come to the office in abayas, which was a sudden change,” says B. “When you work in sales, you’re used to being presentable in terms of your dressing and hygiene. With abaya as a uniform, we aren’t sure how to make it a part of our job, especially when the expectation from sales team remains the same.” She agrees that wearing an abaya cut costs, but in the long run, many of the female staff members feel that unless they want to wear it themselves, it’s hard to sustain it for long.

Some customers are also apprehensive. Neelam Hussain, one such customer, expressed ‘shock’ over ‘smartly turned out women employees in abayas as part of the bank’s new dress code’. What she actually called out, in her online post, was the disparity in these regulations for men and women. While women are made to wear abayas, she argued, men wear suit and tie like they did before.

More online outrage followed the announcement. A good part of the anger was directed at the inherent discrimination against women who were forced to wear Middle Eastern attire while there was practically no change for men. Journalist Najam Sethi raised the question in a tweet: “why does male staff wear Western dress (suit and tie) and female staff Arab dress (abayas and hijab)? What happened to Pakistani dress codes?” Senator Sherry Rehman had a more pertinent concern: “why are women’s bodies such a site for existential contest?”

The bank’s code of conduct, available online, requires men to wear “dress shirt, dress trousers, shalwar kamees with formal waistcoat or sherwani.” The policy states that “female employees should dress elegantly [in line] with cultural norms.” Staff in Islamic branches, “are required to wear hijab (a scarf covering the head and hair, and a gown without being ostentatious hands up to wrists and till toes)”.

“The real issue here is not religion, it’s financial,” says Fatima Ihsan, an assistant professor in charge of Centre of Excellence in Gender Studies, Islamabad. “The banks, or other organisations, are appeasing a particular clientele. This is a customer choosing Islamic banking and probably giving a thumbs up to the management for choosing to remain within the Islamic norms. What the bank is selling here is the idea that sits well with the ideals of what’s truly Islamic, which is a whole different debate. And they are doing it through a woman’s body.”

At the end of it all, Ms Ihsan says, it’s about controlling a woman’s body, and objectifying her by putting more clothes on her. After all, who gets to decide whether abaya is Islamic and a suit is not? she asks.

Like other Islamic banks, Faysal Bank has a Shariah Board with three members who advise the organisation on Shariah-specific issues, a chairman, a member and a resident member. Islamic banking runs parallel to regular banking in Pakistan where religious choice plays a role in determining financial options like loans and interest. The workplace, however, has mostly remained democratic. You are less likely to walk into an Islamic banking branch and feel you’ve been transported to a strange space. With female staff wearing abayas this could change.

The bank’s sartorial prejudice is hardly new for a society knee deep in identity crisis – thanks to foreign content and influences. Such efforts by private organisations, to demarcate gender roles at workspace, even for practical purposes, could be problematic. With focus on crimes against women, these announcements only reinforce certain attitudes towards women, especially those who work outside their houses. A conservatively-dressed woman, lurking in the background of mostly male staff, reinforces the same problematic ideas that have analysts bickering on national television and officials chastising victims of sexual assault – what’s an appropriate clothing for women, what’s the right time to be out without a guardian. A working women in Pakistan has a lot on her plate, while many people support modest dressing as a crucial step towards woman’s protection, such regulations do little to address some of those issues.

Muhammad Faisal Sheikh, head of Islamic Banking, didn’t respond to repeated phone calls for comments.

The author is a freelance writer based in the US. She can be reached at [email protected]

Dress parity