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When clothing becomes political
Yogi Adityanath, UP’s chief minister recently said, “My government won’t discriminate between teeka and topi,” implying he will not play favourites between Hindus and Muslims. Last year, the UAE’s foreign ministry warned its citizens not to wear traditional clothing while abroad after a man in a thobe (the white robe-like garment worn by men from the country) was tackled to the floor by policemen in Ohio. At the same time the ministry warned women to not wear burqas in France, where the garment has been banned.
Expressing cultural sensitivity through our clothes is not a new concept. Tourists, especially women who visit places like India, are advised to cover up in accordance with cultural norms. And as this article points out, Air France asked stewardesses flying to Iran to wear headscarves (despite the country’s own stand on the issue).
At this point it’s old news that there’s a rising intolerance for ethnic and religious differences across the world these days, or at the very least, more leeway to acknowledge such biases publicly than there used to be.
When exactly do our clothes come to signify something greater than our individual selves? If a Muslim wearing a topi feels like he has something to fear in Adityanath’s UP, if a man from UAE consciously dresses differently for the sake of his own safety, if a woman forgoes her burqa because her clothing preferences are at odds with France’s law – they’re all taking on the burden of collective identity by navigating the daily act of dressing themselves. But if our clothing choices can be an act of cultural conciliation (whose burden will always lie on the one who is ‘different’ or simply non-Western) then can they also be transgressive and allow people to assert their collective identities with pride rather than anxiety?
This Economist piece spells out the problem but walks a diplomatic tightrope in its efforts to appease everyone. It’s conclusion on how to navigate dressing in culturally appropriately ways in other countries simply states:
Gulliver wishes he could think of a hard-and-fast rule for how to behave in such circumstances. The best that he can come up with is that if you have chosen to visit or do business somewhere then you should generally accept the cultural norm. But if your conscience doesn’t allow for that, then be strong and make a stand. And culture, although important, doesn’t trump everything, particularly if it is simply a veil for repression.
What does “being strong” and “taking a stand” actually look like in such situations? For example, Turban Day is celebrated by Sikhs all over the world and Stacy Jacobs, a white woman from the US is using the saree as a form of protest.
Searching for turban-wearing Sikh men
Turban Day is an annual event celebrated in various countries – essentially wherever there’s a sizeable Sikh diaspora – on the Sikh festival of Baisakhi. And in a post 9/11 world, where Sikh men are often subjected to xenophobic abuse, asked to remove their turbans at airports and even killed for ‘looking like terrorists’, the day has taken on a more urgent cause – reducing the perceived threat of the turban by educating people about it. This isn’t just done through talks, speeches, diversity workshops and what have you but by simply making sure that Sikh men and women occupy public spaces in a prominent way. Turban Day makes Sikh communities visible in ways that are otherwise denied to them. Sikh men don’t populate TV screens or billboards, we don’t see them often enough to not register turbans as ‘odd’ or ‘unusual’ – and that’s true of Indian media too.
In Bollywood, the only Sikh actor I remember from my childhood is Jaspal Bhatti, who was relegated to the jolly comedian. Main roles like Rishi Kapoor’s younger self in Love Aaj Kal have been played by actors (Saif Ali Khan) who deign to put on a turban and grow a beard for the role (are there really no turbaned Sikh actors who could have played the part instead?) In Raja Hindustani, Johnny Lever played the Sikh sidekick to Aamir Khan’s titular character. He wore a turban, but was completely clean-shaven, displaying a shocking level of ignorance or an inexcusable disregard for accurate representation. But it’s Bollywood, how much can we expect from it anyway – remember when Priyanka Chopra played Mary Kom?
The one notable exception in the void of mainstream Sikh representation has been Indian American designer and actor Waris Ahluwalia who featured in a GAP ad a few years ago (and can often be found in the beautiful frames of Wes Anderson movies). There was no comedic context to wrap around this turbaned and bearded man, no effort to somehow pitch him in a way that implied his appearance was something out of the ordinary – it simply depicted his normality. GAP display windows at the time had Ahluwalia’s face peering out at you, with the universal message of all advertising – here’s a conventionally attractive man trying to sell you things.
While I may categorise Turban Day parades and shows as a form of ‘protest’, the word doesn’t quite capture the joy depicted in Turban Day videos filmed in Oslo, Times Square, Toronto (where it is the Khalsa Day Parade). However, it is an assertion of an often mis-characterised and under-represented identity.
As Amitava Kumar has noted “The desire for advancement often breeds an apolitical attitude among immigrants, a desire not to rock the boat, to be allowed to pass unnoticed.”
Turban Day counteracts exactly that.
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Where’s the protest in that saree?
“Stacy Jacobs uses Indian handloom sarees to protest against policies of US President Donald Trump.” So reads the caption accompanying a photo of a white woman wearing a saree in this NDTV article.
Before we can even move on to the actual text of the article, the picture and caption raise a lot of questions. Is this cultural appropriation? To Jacobs’s credit, she buys her sarees from small Indian retailers and craftsmen and credits them in her captions. Jacobs is not selling cheaper knockoffs for highly inflated prices (ahem ahem, Urban Outfitters). She is in fact supporting local Indian saree makers. Her posts also display an interest in and knowledge of the work that goes into creating different kinds of sarees. The garment is evidently more than an ‘exotic’ cultural artefact or mere prop to Jacobs. And the concerns she expresses in her posts apply to her as much as they apply to any immigrant reeling from Trump’s policies. Her sense of safety was eroded when Trump was elected president as well, her health and her family’s has been jeopardised by the new healthcare plan too.
It’s not that Jacobs is wrong to wear her sarees, but more that her take on her sarees, her reasons to protest and the general media coverage which has lauded her efforts seems to have glossed over the fact that the stakes of wearing a saree (it’s potential impact or effect) are different when Jacobs wears one and when any South Asian woman does.
When a South Asian woman wears a saree in the US, the colour of her skin, her clothing, possibly her accent, all serve to create an image of what an ‘immigrant’ looks like. And in Trump’s America, that word opens the doorway to a lot of racism, xenophobia, public humiliation and even physical harm (let’s never forget that video of a man spouting racist garbage as he filmed Indian families in a children’s park).
Jacobs on the other hand may at worst get some weird looks for wearing a strange garment or more likely, be lauded for being ‘cultural’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ for her engagement with Indian culture. Whereas an Indian woman in a saree in the US is more likely to get “go back to where you came from” or be attacked or written off for a job because she’s not deemed ‘educated’ or ‘assimilated’ enough.
When an Indian woman in a saree or a Sikh man in a turban unapologetically (and confidently) step into American public spaces they’re quietly reacting to and protesting xenophobia and stereotyping. But it’s unclear to me if Jacobs’s protest would be evident if she didn’t caption her Instagrams with “#protestsaree” or add explainers about what a particular saree is supposed to stand against.
In ‘Being Indian in Trump’s America’, Kumar references a racist group from the 1980s, before Islamophobia was the call of the day and the swelling number of Indian immigrants was becoming the nationalist cause championed by some white Americans.
The Dotbusters (referring to the bindis that Hindu women wear) operated in Jersey City in 1987 and their mission was to drive Indians out of there. As a Dotbuster put it, “We will go to any extreme to get Indians to move out of Jersey City. If I’m walking down the street and I see a Hindu and the setting is right, I will hit him or her.” Now had Jacobs lived in Jersey City then, she would have had the option to simply dress in something other than a saree and avoid being attacked. But a South Asian woman would not have been able to escape persecution, saree or not.
Jacobs’s sarees are not an entirely effective form of protest because the saree itself can mean little when it isn’t on a brown woman’s body – the real object of persecution is the woman herself because she is deemed different or ‘other’, not just her clothing. Jacobs’s decision to wear sarees does little to address that.
So what’s the difference between Sikh men in the US raising awareness about their religion by tying turbans on other people and a white woman wearing sarees to protest Trump’s policies? Sure, initially both seem like ways to promote inclusivity and undercut the spectre of ‘otherness’ that hangs over non-Western articles of clothing (and non-white people) in the public sphere in the US and other countries. But one of these things is not wholly like the other.
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