Three years ago, Aiza Hussain was wandering through Lahore’s crowded bazaars looking for a sari. Then a 22-year-old college student, she wanted something that didn’t cost too much, but was glitzy enough to wear at an evening event. She was out of luck.
Saris aren’t commonly worn casually in Pakistan, with middle-class women generally preferring the shalwar kameez (a tunic and trouser set) to the up to nine yards of pleated-and-draped fabric that is more commonly associated with India — and stigmatized, due to the historic conflicts between India and Pakistan. Most saris sold in Pakistan are imported from overseas, and retailers add a huge mark-up on their goods.
“Everything was so expensive, upwards of 15,000 to 20,000 rupees ($71-95),” Hussain told Rest of World. With the additional costs — including purchasing a matching blouse, a petticoat or underskirt, and a fall attachment, plus paying for the fabric to be dyed and pleats to be stitched — the total cost came to around 30,000 rupees ($145), which was far beyond her budget.
Hussain took matters into her own hands. She contacted wholesalers in Lahore who were importing saris from India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, and began to sell the garments on Facebook — at first to a group made up of women from her college in Lahore, and later to a growing community of sari enthusiasts looking for affordable items. In December 2019, she launched her own website, The Saari Girl, a one-stop online shop for saris (paraphernalia and stitching included upon request). With prices starting at around 5,550 rupees (about $26), The Saari Girl’s tagline is “normalizing saris in Pakistan.”
In the past few years, several other online sari retailers have popped up in Pakistan, including Lahore-based Saareeka and Karachi-based Haseen Saree by Sidra. Lahore-based writer and sari aficionado Mina Malik-Hussain, 38, who claims to own at least 80 saris, is thrilled. “The mindset around sari-wearing is changing, and I do think supply is informing demand,” Malik-Hussain told Rest of World. “The sari is no longer a fancy Banarsi number you only wear at weddings, because you can buy a cute cotton one for a quarter of the price and wear it with a peplum [blouse] you already have.”
She said that Instagram has helped enormously, by creating access to ideas and innovations in the sari-wearing community.
Zarlasht Qadir Khan, a 33-year-old sari enthusiast from Lahore, runs an Instagram page, Hijabi Mama in Saarees, where she posts and reviews saris she has purchased online. Mostly, the comments are from other sari fans – encouraging her sari-wearing pursuits and peppering her with heart emojis – but sometimes, she’ll find a comment or two berating her for promoting a “foreign” culture. “It’s really strange,” she told Rest of World. “People tend to associate the sari with India or Hinduism, and the hijab with Muslims.”
Khan dons both – a sari as well as a hijab. She credits online retailers such as The Saari Girl and Saareeka for encouraging her to take the plunge towards wearing saris casually – a soft cotton number worn to lunch with friends, or a breezy ajrak (made from block-printed cloth) draped hastily before picking her children up from school. “Unlike a shalwar kameez – whose style and length changes season after season – a sari is timeless and affordable,” Khan said. “A cotton sari bought from an online retailer usually ranges between 5,000 and 6,500 rupees [$24-31] — roughly the same cost as a shalwar kameez.”
Operating an online sari business comes with growing pains. Hussain works from home and runs a team of four that takes care of everything, from managing The Saari Girl’s website and social media pages to manually verifying each order and making sure that customers have chosen the correct measurements for their pieces. When the volume of orders swells during wedding season – or “Decemberistan” as it is fondly called in Pakistan – her mother and fourteen-year-old sister chip in to help. Sometimes, Hussain and her team have had to scramble to complete and dispatch orders, making 11 p.m. confirmation calls and dispatching stitched pieces within 48 hours.
The Saari Girl’s Instagram direct messages are also chock-a-block with requests and questions that often have little to do with the products being advertised. In Pakistan, unmarried girls are often chastised for wearing saris, and Hussain said customers sometimes ask her if she is willing to package her products discreetly, without labels, in order to hide them “from their mothers or mothers-in-law who might berate them for buying a sari,” she told Rest of World. She also receives many questions from girls asking if they have the appropriate “body type” for a sari. Hussain said her response to such questions is nearly always the same: “Saris are for all bodies.”
While Hussain has found success selling online, she said it is challenging to replicate the experience of shopping for fabric in-person – feeling the softness of cotton or chiffon slip through your fingers – and she has debated setting up a studio of sorts, where customers could drop by and sample her wares.
“While I am very grateful for the ease of online shopping, there is something to be said for inspiration striking you at the kapra wallah [the neighborhood cloth market],” said Malik-Hussain, the writer from Lahore. “I have just bought myself a length of fantastically mad chiffon I am very excited about.”