Empower, not endanger: Why Karachi brand Manto had to tell its customers to set aside its clothes

Empower, not endanger: Why Karachi brand Manto had to tell its customers to set aside its clothes

Manto's brand focuses on Urdu calligraphy, and after the Ichra incident, people are scared of wearing their clothes.
Updated 28 Feb, 2024

I don’t remember the last time I felt this scared of wearing anything, let alone something that bears Urdu text. But just one scroll through X (formerly Twitter) will tell you that the Ichra case has instilled a certain level of hesitance, if not fear, in many, myself included, of wearing our favourite shirts from Karachi-based brand Manto — a decision that did not warrant a second thought a mere two days ago.

Manto inspires a certain level of defiance in the realm of Pakistani fashion with its statement accessories and prints featuring empowering Urdu words or handpicked couplets from revered poets such as Allama Iqbal, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mirza Ghalib, and Jaun Elia. Known for its distinctive style and commitment to empowering Urdu literature — the look of which could be confused for Arabic, especially when calligraphed — the brand felt compelled to put out a statement on Monday after a false ‘blasphemy’ alarm left a woman helpless, hiding in a shop at a bazaar in Lahore, out of fear of being lynched.

The brand, reaffirming its commitment to safety and respect for all, expressed deep concern for its customers who might fear facing a similar fate as the woman whose clothes featured benign Arabic words meaning ‘beautiful’ and ‘life’ that were confused for verses from the Holy Quran.

Manto’s statement, shared on their Instagram, reads, “In light of the current events, we feel extremely sad seeing all that has happened. This is why we wanted to address this heart-wrenching issue. Please know that your safety as an individual must always be a priority. And at any given moment, if you feel uncomfortable or unsafe wearing your Manto outfit, then please just set [it] aside.”

The brand reiterated that it would never, under any circumstance, want its customers to put their safety at risk because of the chance that the text on their kurtis or scarves might be mistaken for something it was not. “Every religion teaches us one essential truth: violence against women is unacceptable. It goes against everything we believe in — our values, our teachings, our faith. Every woman deserves to feel safe and respected.”

The brand assured that their actions aligned with their values, therefore they “consciously avoid using words that might have double meanings,” including poetry that may directly or indirectly reference or address God. “Again, we want to stress to you that we are extremely grateful for your love and support but please be safe and put yourself first.”

But with polarising views surrounding Manto’s statement on the incident, it felt imperative to have a conversation with the founder of Manto about what prompted the brand to make this statement and the kind of measures it would be taking moving forward, since it’s ethos revolves around inscription of Urdu calligraphy on prints that might carry the risk of being misunderstood.

Helming a brand that believes in creating dialogue through fashion, Manto founder Salman Parekh shared with Images that what needs to be done at any particular time — especially during such polarising times — is to create dialogue that would instil awareness instead of fear. “Whether it’s a disagreement we’re tackling or extremism, we believe in the power of dialogue, being able to ask the right questions and tackling those questions the right way will educate people,” he said.

Parekh noted that while what happened at Ichra Bazaar was extremely disheartening, it has given us all something to think about. And a recent interview of ASP Sheharbano Naqvi has highlighted a conversation that needs to be had about mob mentality. “Unfortunately, the essence of what ASP Sheharbano was saying was that when in mobs, people get so involved they forget their boundaries of tolerance and end up doing something that they wouldn’t otherwise as individuals. So the only thing all of us can do is create dialogue with the right intention to make sure that the people who do not understand either mob mentality or our work, or what we wear and why we wear it, eventually start understanding.”

When asked about any security measures he would now consider taking for his outlets, Parekh said, “To be honest, we are not any more scared, we are worried, definitely, but not scared. Because neither did the victim of the Ichra case do anything wrong and neither are we doing anything wrong. But there is concern. I just hope we can utilise this as an opportunity to create dialogue instead of furthering a divide. It’s completely fine if someone thinks our dresses are not the kind that should be worn because we encourage everyone to come to the table and talk about it.”

Parekh said the brand has not been subjected to scrutiny in the past — even when Manto was newly introduced and dresses with Urdu inscriptions were a novelty. “People with religious values have always embraced our work. The element of criticism has not been much. Because I do understand that there is this level of responsibility we have as a brand to double-check whether anything we print is triggering to any individual or group. We also make sure that we present our customers with all the translations of the words we are using on the clothes they want to buy.

“This is something that we have been very cautious of from day one, we had been very careful from the get-go that none of our designs hurt anyone’s sentiments. We were always wary of using words that may refer to — directly or indirectly — any religion, and the scope of words we used had to be empowering.”

While Manto’s statement underscores the brand’s proactive approach to ensuring that its designs are sensitive to cultural and religious sensitivities, the Ichra incident serves as a stark reminder of the importance of tolerance and understanding in a diverse society. And like Parekh said, we need to work on fostering a culture of respect and empathy through dialogue, where individuals can express themselves freely without fear of being persecuted.


Laila Feb 27, 2024 07:49pm
Co-existence, tolerance, peace, understanding and empathy have a very long way to go in Pakistan, sadly. The meaning of these words are lost on lost and only applies when the tables are turned and it is we who face intolerance or discrimination abroad. The cloak of darkness that has swept the nation for decades if not centuries will remain. Until these values you mention are part and parcel of education and upbringing for both genders and islam is allowed to exist in its true form and not through our often distorted, patriarchal, ignorant, barbaric and regressive. culture. Islam is light. Culture is darkness. Both can not coexist. One can only hope with time and instant access now exposure to the outside world through the internet that true islam, tolerance, diversity and respect can find its way and we can move into the 21st century where wearing garments or accessories with words, poetry, phrases, quotes whether in Arabic or Urdu should not carry a risk to ones dignity or life and where instigators of such vigilantes and mobs are subjected to the brutal force of police, arrested and tried in court and where women actually safe and not ganged up on and demanded to undress, being filmed and photographed without consent (another word and concept lost on most people) and threatened with being killed or forced to apologize to such barbarians and where clerics actually know and understand islam so they can properly promote tolerance and educate the masses instead of the made up innovations they successfully pass on under the guise of islam. It feels like we are living in the stone age and not 2024.
Saleem Feb 27, 2024 09:02pm
First, we need to education our people on the street before we launch this type of products!
AMBER S HUSSAIN Feb 27, 2024 10:49pm
Personally, I feel it has brought the brand more into focus- in a positive way. When you have brands like these exemplifying the art and culture of Pakistan, it gives one hope, rather than make one despair. Mob mentality will change, it has to; as long as we don't cower from it. Keep up the good work, Manto.
yaser Feb 27, 2024 10:53pm
Why do we need to print poetry on clothes? Clothing is to be worn & washed, not read. I think it is disrespectful to any kind of literature. After all, it's called "adab" for a reason.
Khurram Feb 27, 2024 11:21pm
Everything is good when it is within boundaries. The fashion statements need to be within boundaries period.
Sofia Feb 28, 2024 12:39am
I love Manto
paarth Feb 28, 2024 12:41am
Even Saudi Arabia is getting to a more tolerant society than Pakistan. Pakistan should have a strong government that frowns upon the mob dispensing justice.
Shan Feb 28, 2024 02:11am
Please allow the PPP and PMLN some time to work out power sharing formula. I am sure after that they will work on education, health and economy as well. Just give them couple of years to agree on power sharing please. Do not rush them.
ahsan Feb 28, 2024 03:02am
Well this is the way to educate people on the street sir. Do not blame women for your male dominated views
Syed salahuddin Feb 28, 2024 03:33am
Not hyper religiosity, stupidness and ignorance about religion is the reason. No true practical Muslim will do it, so top blaming the religion
F.Iqbal Feb 28, 2024 06:28am
Mahjabeen zia Feb 28, 2024 03:35pm
Zero Tolerance and Zero education in Pakistanis.
Amna Khan Feb 28, 2024 03:42pm
If anything, I think all our women should hold country wide protests wearing clothes with calligraphy (urdu/Arabic) to represent the fact that it's not just normal, as well as their choice is more important to be considered. There is nothing unholy about this. These harrassers should be the ones tried in the court. That woman should have never been made to apologise for a crime she never committed. This intolerance will only grow if people are allowed, especially against women.
Mohsin Alim Qazi Feb 28, 2024 04:01pm
Why do we fool ourselves that the ichra incident is (just) due to some misplaced religiosity. Most likely the perperator is niether knowledgable or practising muslim (namaz, ikhlaq, haqooq al ibad etc.). Our society is deeply divided with a huge population pushed into poverty and loss of agency, justice, social justice, empowerment - absolute despondency and despair reigning supreme. Only thing to cling on is religious or national identities. If "the wretched theiving liberal elite" is perceived to ridicule the last remaining bit of dignity/identity you might get - although misplaced - reaction. So instead of getting to cliched analysis about inadequacy of mualvis, lets start addressing cracks in our society.
hamza khan Feb 28, 2024 08:25pm
@Amna Khan- nothing wrong with wearing Arabic or Urdu calligraphy, dont think vast amounts of people will object to that across the Muslim world. Obviously it should not have any Quranic verses on it, but its safe to say ppl will veer away from anything like that generally speaking. Utilizing good judgement is a two way street until we get to the point where people are not so easily triggered by the most inane things.
Waqar Feb 28, 2024 08:47pm
In Pakistan, lawlessness prevails everywhere. Since there are no consequences, people do whatever they like. Thousands of small, large infringements happen everyday. This incident got highlighted because of obvious reasons but the underlying issue is same.