In recent years, buoyed by the popularity of Bollywood films and the rising profile of India in the global economy, a number of female celebrities in the West have taken to wearing saris, the traditional garment of Indian women, in public appearances
From Oprah Winfrey to Elizabeth Hurley to Paris Hilton to Madonna and Cherie Blair, some prominent women in the west have been seen flaunting the Indian-style clothing in various public forums.
While these women are not intentionally seeking to do any “harm” (and in many cases are exhibiting their fondness for Indian culture), to me, as a person of Indian descent, I find the whole spectacle rather patronizing and yet another effort to both “trivialize” and unnecessarily “exoticize” Indian women and their lifestyles.
In short, Western women look ridiculous wearing saris and most of them likely know nothing about Indian culture.
For one thing, while these women probably think they are being “open-minded” and “multi-cultural” by donning the clothes of a far-away land that they have only a superficial knowledge of, the sari was originally intended to keep teenaged girls and women both comfortable in the heat and to look ”modest.”
While not as extreme as the Islamic burqa, the sari was designed to “hide” a woman’s figure and curves in order to prevent the unwanted attentions of men (and, by extension, a sexual assault).
(Not that this has prevented millions of Indian men from bothering women over the centuries).
Moreover, from a purely personal perspective, when I see an American or British woman clad in a sari at some glamorous function, I feel like I am watching some deep-pocketed trick-or-treaters on Halloween. It’s a “game” for them, a time to play “dress-up.” Today, it’s the Indian sari, next week it might be the Japanese kimono, next month, it could be a Moroccan fez (whatever is “hot” and “trendy” at the moment).
My mother wears a sari because it is her culture and she grew up with it (she could not imagine ever wearing anything else, and she has lived in the West for decades).
However, ironically, as saris become an increasingly popular “fashion item” in the West, increasing numbers of Indian women living among the Diaspora are abandoning the sari in droves. They might wear the sari at some unusual special function like a wedding, but for the most part, young Indian ladies in London, Toronto, New York and Los Angeles wear “western” clothes on a daily basis, when they are at work or play or out on the town.
I can’t remember the last time I saw an Indian woman under the age of 50 wearing a sari in public in New York City.
An Indian girl I know (born and raised in Boston) once told me that she did not even know how to put on a sari and had no desire to learn. She equated the sari with the “oppression” of women in India and wanted no part of it whatsoever.
Another Indian girl (from Toronto) told me she found the sari too “old-fashioned” and “too time consuming to put on.”
Granted, a great many Indian women in the west love the sari and find it a glorious expression of one’s unique and ancient culture – but even they wear it only once in a blue moon.
As for Western women, they have no pressing need to wear a sari.
A blogger calling herself “Gori Girl” (which translates into “white girl) would strongly disagree with me.
She once wrote: “When I read that a Westerner in a sari is committing the sin of cultural appropriation, I got more than a little offended. Isn’t the intent more important than outside opinion? .. How is my admiration and love of the sari an insult to anyone? How is something so positive turned by some people into a negative?”
To answer Gori Girl, my response would be: “You can wear the sari only if you are willing to fully embrace Indian culture, even the parts that you as a white Westerner would normally find offensive or even appalling. But by wearing a sari while having no real links to India, you come across as very superficial.”
However, Gori Girl raised a good point by noting that many non-western girls wear western-style clothing these days.
“As people all over the world turn aside from their traditional wear in favor of the Western uniform of jeans and t-shirts, shouldn’t it be an occasion of joy to see that their cultural heritage is treasured by people on the outside of the culture?,” she asked. “How exactly is it that a non-Westerner can go between the different styles of dress, but a Westerner cannot? Is this not a double standard, and is this truly acceptable?”
My answer to this query is that non-western (i.e. Indian ) women are wearing “western-style” clothes because Western Europe -- and later, the United States -- has dominated world affairs for the past four or five centuries. They have, in effect, become the arbiter of what is acceptable and fashionable solely due to their vast economic and military power.
Gori Girl rightfully added that Indian is a rising global power itself now.
She wrote: “My embracing of the sari, rather than being seen as a confiscation of something that does not belong to me, should perhaps be seen as my acceptance of future world leadership. The world gets smaller every day. We all have to live in it. We should all be allowed to celebrate whichever parts of it that we love, no matter if it is something native to our lands or not. Even if something is not native to one’s homeland, it can become native to one’s heart.”
I can’t deny these latter sentiments, though I respectfully disagree with Gori Girl.
In an article in the Toronto Star newspaper, an Indian woman named Anju Saini said: “People want all that Bollywood glitter — to make that Bollywood entrance… Indian outfits are so vibrant, so colorful, so sexy — they cheer you up.”
Saini’s statement perfectly crystallizes how shallow and superficial this phenomenon is – Bollywood had little or nothing to do with Indian culture. The Mumbai film industry is itself a gross and vulgar distortion of Indian society – and this is what is being broadcast to the world as “representing” India.
I guess I can live with this trend for now, since I am powerless to stop it.
But I will really be bewildered if and when I see western women wearing burqas and niqabs.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.