I dress therefore I am ….By Batul Mukhtiar | November 18th, 2009 | Category: Identity
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