I dress therefore I am ….

The other day my brother complained about my mother wearing the rida* when she went out with us.

At an up-market restaurant mainly frequented by corporate types, the staff doesn’t seem too keen on giving us a table. But we persist in waiting. On our way to a table, curious glances follow us. Or perhaps all this is only our own perception, perhaps we have become paranoid about what other people think of us.

We want to be perceived as modern. Not different from everyone else. We should blend in, we think. My brother and I.

My mother however has no objections to us wearing jeans, or whatever we want. But we do - to her wearing the rida.

Why does she wear it? She, who used to wear saris*, and even a pair of trousers once at a picnic.

Perhaps it was around the time of the rise of Khomeni in Iran, that our Shia community in India began to move back to traditionalism. All the women I knew had worn saris until then, they wore the traditional ghagra-odhna* at community functions. My grandmother wore a khes when she went out, a black knee-length cape over her clothes.

When the diktat to wear the rida was introduced, it was not only we young ones who rebelled, but even our mothers and aunts. For years, we would stumble into the ridas, dragging them over our ‘normal’ clothes, just outside the doors of the jamaatkhana. Or we’d spend hours planning illicit entries into our cousins’ weddings, pretending to be ‘out-caste’ guests by wearing saris, and bindis on our forehead. But within a few years, the community priests became stricter and families came to be divided on the lines of those who wanted to obey the priests and those who didn’t want to give up their individual freedom.

Living in India, we still manage to find our clumsy ways of following and yet not following community dictums. Mixed dress families in the outside world like ours are not uncommon, though there are now no options to drawing the line when it comes to going to the community halls, mosques or burial grounds.

Yet, over the years, I have found myself defending and sympathizing with those girls fighting for the right to wear the hijab if they so wish it, in western countries. I feel aggrieved that ethnic or traditional costumes should be barred from certain places, in the name of freedom. Even though I myself, still don’t understand the need to wear the hijab. And I wonder if the women who chose to do so really, really wear it, because they want to? Or because they are so conditioned to obey? Or because it is convenient not to fight those to whom you belong?

I know my mother often dons the rida because it is more convenient. She does not have to change to ‘outside’ clothes, and can just pull on a rida over her home clothes when she needs to go out. But also because she does not want to stand out amongst those of her own community. She does not want to be seen by somebody of her own community without a rida and be commented on. She has no sense of purdah really or the need to protect herself from the male gaze. When she is away from home, unlikely to meet anyone from the community, she wears salwar-kameezes without any pangs of guilt.

I remember a friend researching the dress codes of different tribes in Kutch. The women wear dresses of the same colors, the same cut, often made from the same roll of cloth with intricate embroidery that is an anthropological code. It’s a declaration of ‘We belong’.

This declaration is also made by those of us who like to think of ourselves as modern. We too like to dress like everyone else we know, wear the same brands, the same colors, the same cuts that are in fashion. It’s a declaration of the tribe that we choose to belong to. The tribe of the fashionable, modern consumers. We are so conscious of looking like everybody else, that traditional dress is now seen as a declaration of being orthodox. In our desire to be secular, we are often as prejudiced and intolerant as religious fanatics.

I think if my mother is OK with my dress, she too should be given the freedom to choose and declare which tribe she belongs to.

Some time ago I saw a young girl in a rida, in a hotel in South Mumbai. She was looking after some important foreign guests. She was dressed in a tight-fitting ankle-length corduroy skirt in pink and black stripes, a matching T-shirt peeked from underneath her rida cape in pink and black stripes. With her smart black leather clutch bag, and very expensive metallic jewellery, she’d managed to make a very stylish statement in a very orthodox costume. As I stared at her goggle-eyed, all my confusions about the rida came back to the fore. Later when I asked my sister-in-law, who is more connected to the community than I am, about it, she said all the young girls were now wearing ridas like this. “They are for the young and slim,” she said.

Nisha Susan
in her article ‘Why I wear a Hijab?’ published in Tehelka gives a voice to young women who wear a hijab by choice, and concludes that the story of the new hijab is certainly not the story of the old hijab, and is as politically loaded as once khadi must have been. Truth be told, I’ve been sitting on this post for a long while, unsure whether I wanted to publish it, unsure about my own thoughts. Nisha’s article made me feel confident enough to ignore my confusions. And then I read today of Atiha Sen Gupta’s play, ‘What Fatima Did…’.

Rida - a traditional burqa worn by the women of the Dawoodi Bohra community. It has a flared skirt and a cape, and is usually in pastel colors with embroidery.
Ghagra-odhna - a traditional skirt, blouse and dupatta costume, usually heavily embroidered.
Jamaat-khaana - community hall

18 comments
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  1. Also, Batul, sometimes, i think its how we perceive we are ‘giving respect’ to the elders or the leaders of the family/ community. If ladies who are much more at ease in jeans, choose to wear sarees or other traditional wear when at family/ community gatherings, its not just to not stand out and be chastened, but perhaps, some are thinking that if elders are present, they want to make them comfortable.

  2. “I wonder if the women who chose to do so really, really wear it, because they want to? Or because they are so conditioned to obey? Or because it is convenient not to fight those to whom you belong?” I wonder too. And I wouldn’t deny someone the right to veil themselves when they want to. But why do they want to? If it’s about the ‘male gaze’, shouldnt we doing something about the gaze rather than hiding our bodies?

    Nice piece, as usual.

  3. Well written as usual, Banno. It is a very difficult thing to figure out—in the west of course burqas are mostly seen as a symbol of the oppression of women, which it IS in that it is a symbol of how women are considered “possessions” not to be coveted by other men. That is a very damaging attitude, but on the other hand sometimes I would love to be able to pull one on and go out with nobody able to see me! It’s hard to have something like that both ways, though, I guess. Kind of like having men treat us like equals but making them pay for everything :)

  4. What a wonderful write-up! I think any dress becomes oppression when those that don’t follow it are criticized, commented on, or punished. Be it a purdah, gunghat, bikini or jeans!

  5. Jkd, yes, but there are also prescribed ways of giving respect to elders, and usually, it always comes down to women’s behaviour or dress or lifestyle choice.

    Unmana, yes, that’s where the confusion does lie. In the male gaze.

    Memsaab, as someone who’s rebelled and seen a lot of rebellion within the house against the burqah, I’d be loath to wear it. But I do hate being dictated to, in the name of freedom too. Yes, tough, tough, tough.

    Veena, sure, I agree completely.

  6. Great write-up Batul. It echoes some of my own thoughts! Like most people, I do tend to view the hijab and burkha as symbols of male oppression of womankind (yes, I know its complicated, but a lifetime of conditioning isnt easy to overcome!). However, I too, think that any woman who wants to wear one (for whatever reason) should have the right to wear it. If all these zealous opponents of purdah really want to see it abandoned, trying to force “liberal” dress-codes is hardly the right way to do it! That just breeds defiance, not to mention that it impinges on individual freedom.

  7. Bollyviewer, zealots in any form are just that, zealots.

  8. Tasneem Dairywala
    Mr. Ouzas
    ENG3U1
    April 19, 2008
    Definition Essay Assignment

    When I say I am a Muslim, everyone knows what I am talking about. When I say I am a Daudi Bohra, I get blank looks. Daudi Bohra is a Muslim sect that believes in Allah and Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) as all other Muslims. However, we have our differences. One of these includes the way we dress. Men wear beards, gold-rimmed white hats, and “saya kurtas”, and women wear “ridas”. At the age of thirteen, I was required to take a vow to always wear my rida. Before taking this vow, “misaak”, I put on a rida for the very first time. When I looked in the mirror, all I could do was stare at myself and marvel at how different I looked. It was a surprise. A surprise I loved. Something clicked inside of me then and I knew that it was time I started taking my religion seriously.
    A year later, I finally gathered the courage to start wearing my rida to school. On the first day, I was the center of attention. Everyone stared. I was scared. As I started appreciating the rida, I got immune to the stares. I knew I had done the right thing, and I liked myself much better because of it. Through this knowledge, I gained supremacy over all the people who spoke against the way I dressed. Not caring about what other people think, not caring about what other people say, not caring about anyone or anything that comes between me and my faith, once I know my priorities and my values and what is truly important and what is not, this is what power is all about. Power flows in any relationship. It is everywhere. It comes in many different forms. It is in each of us. It is up to us to find it within ourselves. For me, power is fighting my fears so I can stand by my beliefs – stand by my beliefs because of my knowledge of right and wrong.
    Being scared of stares, stares that carry thoughts, thoughts that carry judgments, and still making my way to school with the gut wrenching tension of being judged unfairly – this is power.
    It has been two whole years since my first day in school with the rida. I still remember the looks I got, the way people’s heads turned, the whispers they tried to cover with their hands on their mouths. They had enough energy to make me want to go hide in a corner and never come back out. Yet, I continued on my way to school with the knowledge that it would not be right to not fulfill the vow I took, and this knowledge gave me power. It gave me courage when I was terrified.
    Knowing that wearing my rida is the right decision and ignoring everyone who does not agree – this is power.
    After the first week, I got used to the stares. I realized it did not matter what anyone thought. Now, when people say something rude to me about the way I dress, I do not even bother responding, because I know now that it is not important to be liked by anyone as long as I like myself; as long as I know I am making the right choices. This knowledge has helped me find power within myself. It has shown me that my beliefs are more important than other people’s judgments about me.
    Accepting who I am and enjoying it without any uneasiness – this is power.
    Once I realized that what others thought did not matter, I became confident in myself for my decision. No one can hurt me with rude comments anymore because I simply do not care. I like myself and it does not matter to me if someone cannot accept me the way I am. I know now that I made the right vow by accepting the rida, accepting my religion, accepting who I am, and this knowledge gives me even more power. It makes me respect myself, be content with myself.
    I have power over all who speak against my rida, because my knowledge of right and wrong and love for my belief is stronger than anyone’s ideas on how one should dress. This power can only be taken away from me if I get too terrified to believe in myself, believe in the values I have grown up with and instead, decide to go along with the tide of other people’s thoughts and opinions instead of my own. The rida makes me who I am. It has given me my love for my religion along with the confidence to show this love without being troubled by other people’s thoughts and I hope that it will remain a part of me as long as I live.

  9. While I’m still a bit wary of condoning the Burqa in any way, even with the free choice argument, the Borha Rida is actually quite pretty unlike the hideous black burqa with the eye slit.

    And somehow, normalising for income levels/education, from the little I’ve seen, the veil is a lot more ubiquitous among Borhas than among other Muslims.

  10. Tasnim, thanks for writing in such detail about your own experiences. I really appreciate the stand you have taken, and admire your courage. As long as you are happy with the choices you make, more power to you.

    Hades, yes, you are right. The Bohri rida is pretty and decorative. And does go across the class/ education divide. In fact, most Bohri women are well educated, sometimes more so than the men, because the men usually have family businesses to take care of. And there are no issues about a girl being more educated than a boy. :)

  11. Hi, when i read the para below, some thoughts poured out from my heart …

    “We too like to dress like everyone else we know, wear the same brands, the same colors, the same cuts that are in fashion. It’s a declaration of the tribe that we choose to belong to. The tribe of the fashionable, modern consumers. We are so conscious of looking like everybody else, that traditional dress is now seen as a declaration of being orthodox. In our desire to be secular, we are often as prejudiced and intolerant as religious fanatics.
    I think if my mother is OK with my dress, she too should be given the freedom to choose and declare which tribe she belongs to.”

    I believe in a higher purpose for being on this earth, rather than a worldly existence alone. I believe i am a soul which has come here to evolve. This i believe is possible to attain only through a higher spiritual connection. In order for my soul to resonate at a higher frequency, i connect to my ‘Spiritual Guide’. The basis of this relationship is very simple : pure love and trust!
    So when i don my rida, i do it because It is important for me to attain his happiness and i do it out of my LOVE, and RESPECT for my Moula [TUS]…he defines my identity, nothing more nothing less…its pure trust…no scope for doubt!! it defines the direction in which i am heading….and i believe I am conscious enough to choose to belong to his TRIBE…..

  12. Every community, org. ,sect or group defines their own ‘dress code’.
    According to Brienstein there are two kind of rules: 1.rules of recognition, and 2.rules of realisation. The former rule is like a defined law. For eg., one must wear white clothes to a wedding and black to a funeral. the latter however is where freedom of choice comes in. For eg.,one can choose what ‘kind’ and ’style’ of white wedding or black funeral dress to wear.
    Now does being a modern liberated woman mean :being set free from dictates, even though inadvertently being bound by the dress code of the western culture?
    If one argues that liberation means having freedom of choice, and one chooses -”by whom to be lead,” then it is justified to follow their dress code of blacks, whites and browns….
    Simply said my argument is that then if you choose to belong to our community, then it is but fair to follow the community’s dress code, in terms of the rules of recognition, which in this case is: women wear the ‘rida’ for purdah. The freedom of choice remains in the rules of realisation, of whether to wear ridas like the kutchi women or then like the pink and black striped corduroy ones. Either ways the bottom line is : I am- therefore i dress….!!!

  13. Slight correction in second line: Its Bernstein and not Brienstein

  14. Asma, Arfi, I definitely agree that each of us has a choice to decide who we chose to follow. And that dictates our conformities be it in dress, or rituals or other customs within the community.

    The problem within a community or a nation (whatever the religion or race, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Asian or Western, black, yellow, brown, white) comes when these conformities are imposed. And unfortunately these impositions usually impact women more.

  15. Agreed Batul, …but that is what Arfi is talking about- maybe the RULES OF RECOGNITION cannot be ignored…they are like laws , and like any other law…they too are rightfully imposed, be it any community or culture, and interestingly that is what creates the anthropological codes of ‘we belong’. For eg. i dare any women to wear a peacock blue bikini [ exaggerating] to a funeral or a wedding? Will she? No! Why? because she wants to fit in..belong and so she dare not violate the basic dress codes.

    On the other hand, when the Rules of REALISATION start being imposed, that can be very stiffling as that defines your basic style and preferences and can create more rebellion in women esp. since it affects them more as you say.

  16. Coming from a different community possibly I would have paused here and let this blog go. But the pieces are good, evocative and heartfelt and so I wanted to add my two bit too.

    Possibly the strongest voice here is that of Tasneem…who in her young zeal has defended her right to POWER. Power of belonging, exclusivity, reason, relationship, trust and belief, if not defiance in the face of western imposition, can blind people, can shut doors of reason, can become obligatory and fascist. Possibly the line needs to be drawn then. Maybe the better word would be to look for respect. For respect flows mutually…and has a give and take relationship. So absence of blue bikini to the funeral is as much out of respect for the group and the solemnity of the occasion as one’s desire to belong.

    World would be a better place if we all stop by and listen…..the classmates to the odd one out, the passers by to the oddly dressed one, the priest to generation x and the teen to their parents. Respect does not meen compliance…sometimes even mortal enemies recognise territories they do not want to encroach.

    Of course to respect one has to recognize there lies an equally valid space outside ones definition. Recognising others right to truth, existance and definition is the first step to this dialogue. It threatens nobody but who make their day selling the ‘only path-s to salvation’, economic, religious or cultural.

  17. Hi Batul,

    That power essay was written by me over a year ago for a school assignment. It got forwarded around without my permission or knowledge by my dad.. I was angry then, but once I started receiving comments, I was glad he forwarded it.
    I googled my name today out of curiosity and ended up here.. it was a nice surprise!

    Your post & its title are amazing. I had no idea about the rebellious side of the Bohri community & that people would dress up as ‘out caste’s to avoid ridas. I know most Bohri women, at least in Toronto, don’t wear ridas outside of masjids & other religious places, but I was totally ignorant of the fact that it was ever an issue to wear one even to masjid. My grandmother will be thoroughly questioned on her views on the rida as a young girl now!!

    As for your questions on whether “women who chose to [wear hijaabs] really, really wear it, because they want to? Or because they are so conditioned to obey? Or because it is convenient not to fight those to whom you belong?”………. I have to say that really does depend on the individual. I have a lot of friends who hate wearing a hijaab but do so to please their families, so yes, there are women out there who don’t make their own decisions - but personally, there was no condition put on me to wear a rida. My mother doesn’t wear it. My sister doesn’t either. I chose to out of my own free will - and it’s not more convenient! I’m 18 and I love dressing up, so I still take my time putting it on and making sure it’s just right=) & I’ve had my share of arguments about it with my own family and friends – so definitely, definitely not more convenient.

    Like your mother, I also wear shalwar kameezes to occasional Pakistani events without any ‘pangs of guilt’. I also wear a uniform going to work because it’s compulsory. & I dress appropriately when I want to go work in a wood workshop or go ride a roller-coaster or go swimming or skiing. But at the same time, I enjoy wearing a rida to most places, as long as it doesn’t become an obstacle and stops me from doing what I want. It’s hypocritical of me I guess, but the thing is, it’s my body, and my decision. I love wearing ridas, but refuse to give up on other things that are important to me because of it. I want it all and I don’t know if it’s right or not, but for now, I will have it all.

    The rida, at least for me, isn’t just about the male gaze. I agree with your comment about belonging to a ‘tribe’ much more. For me, it is more about being proud of my religion and beliefs, and belonging to the Daudi Bohra community. It makes me feel pure, and yes, liberated, from having to conform to what others think is normal, beautiful or perfect.

    Thanks a lot for your post, comments, and the links you’ve provided! It really gave me something to think about!!

    P.S. If you have time, check out my website. I’ve started uploading some of my artwork on it & some of the more recent pieces do deal with issues of identity and beauty.

  18. Oops, I thought the website would show in the comment.
    It’s http://www.teedeee.wordpress.com

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