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Sartorial culture in Bangladesh. Institute on Infusing South Asia into the Undergraduate Curriculum East-West Center, Honolulu, Hawaii Dr. Angela R. Demovic, Assistant Professor of Anthopology Wichita State University Thanks to photographer Ziaul Haq for permission to use his images.

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sartorial culture in bangladesh
Sartorial culture in Bangladesh

Institute on Infusing South Asia into the Undergraduate Curriculum

East-West Center, Honolulu, Hawaii

Dr. Angela R. Demovic, Assistant Professor of Anthopology

Wichita State University

Thanks to photographer Ziaul Haq for permission to use his images

anthropology of the body anth 397 597
Anthropology of the Body (Anth 397/597)
  • The course is about the body and its construction as a cultural artifact
  • The example of Bangladesh will inform several topics covered in the course
    • Cloth and Adornment
    • The Colonial encounter, Embodiment, and Identity
    • Globalization and Women’s Bodies

Burqa and Shalwar, Jeans and Sari - Changing Fashions on the Streets of Dhaka (in “Society” on the 19th of October 2009)

Why the Question of Women’s Dress in Bangladesh?

  • research done by the Department of Women’s Studies at Dhaka University , concerned with whether women in Bangladesh are increasingly adopting the veil
  • In addition to various burqua styles, reports an “expanded spectrum” since independence in 1971 in women’s attire including shalwar kameez, jeans and short kurtas, traditional saris
  • “women’s wear is an intricate part of the Bangladeshi woman’s changing views of herself and the world”
the sari as marker of female maturity

Unless specifically asked about another garment, responses about what sorts of dress particular informants choose, when, and why have focused overwhelmingly on the sari. Interviews with Bangladeshi women have elicited a detailed list of the appropriate color and style of sari to wear on various holidays, both religious and secular. The sari is also an important symbol of a woman’s life stage.

The Sari as marker of female maturity

Widowhood and the white sari

Part I: What have Bangladeshi Women Told ME so far?

the sari as traditional ethnic dress
The Sari as traditional ethnic dress
  • Terence Turner on “The Social Skin”
    • Body adornment is a powerful symbolic language
    • The concept of the “social skin”
    • Socialization of the naked body through adornment
  • Terence S. Turner. 1993. “The Social Skin.” In Reading the Social Body, eds. Catherine B. Burroughs and Jeffrey David Ehrenreich. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.
the politics of dress
The politics of dress

Georg Simmel “Fashion, Adornment and Style” in Simmel on Culture: Selected Writings

Eds. David Frisby and Mike Featherstone

London, SAGE Publications Ltd.

(available on Google books)

the shalwar kamiz a love hate relationship
The Shalwar Kamiz: A love hate relationship
  • Three discourses:
  • Hindu (Vedic) versus Islam
  • Bangladeshi women recognize the garment is identified with Islam, by far the majority religion of Bangladesh. The style first arrived in India with the Mughal invaders during the 14th century – unlike the sari, for which there is evidence in Indus Valley art
  • “East Pakistan” versus “Bangladesh”
  • The brutality of Pakistan’s attempt to prevent Bangladeshi independence in 1971 remains an unresolved, salient issue in contemporary Bangladeshi political discourse. The ShalwarKamiz is associated with Pakistan, as its national dress.
  • West versus East
  • The garment allows freedom of movement (for example, to visit fish markets, or to prepare dawaat) without embracing Western dress

(My Significant “Other” and a cousin)

gender differences roots in the colonial era and developed with nationalism

Some Ideas About the History of The Situation

Gender Differences: Roots in the Colonial Era and developed with Nationalism


Chatterjee, Partha “Colonialism, Nationalism, and Colonialized Women: The Contest in India.” American Ethnologist,Vol. 16, No. 4 (Nov., 1989), pp. 622-633

Thapar-Björkert, Suruchi; Ryan, Louise. “Mother India/Mother Ireland: Comparative Gendered Dialogues of Colonialism and Nationalism in the Early 20th Century.” Women’s Studies International Forum v. 25 no. 3 (May/June 2002) p. 301-13.

Mukhopadhyay, Bhudev. “Lajjā – śīlatā” (Modesty), In Bhȗdev-racanāsambhār, Pramathanath, ed. Calcutta. 1969. Mitra and Ghosh.

Mukhopadhyay discusses Lajjā – śīlatā, a quality of “modesty” which he says is spiritual, is more cultivated and cherished by women than by men, and which necessitates a difference in the manner/degree of Westernization for men and women

Ghar and bāhir : the home and the world

“In the world, imitation of and adaptation to Western norms was a necessity, at home, they were tantamount to annihilation of one’s very identity.” (Chatterjee 1989:624)

“To ridicule the idea of a Bengali woman (in the first half of the 19th century) trying to imitate the ways of a memsāheb… was a sure recipe calculated to evoke raucous laughter and moral condemnation in both male and female audiences. It was… a criticism of manners, of new items of clothing… of the use of Western cosmetics and jewelry, of the reading of novels… What made the ridicule stronger was the constant suggestion that the Westernized woman was fond of useless luxury and cared little for the well-being of the home.” (Chatterjee 1989:625)

additional historical sources
Additional Historical Sources

Borthwick, Meredith. 1984. The Changing Roles of Women in Bengal 1849-1905. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press.

Chatterjee, Partha. Nationalist Thought in the Colonial World. London: Zed Books.

Ghosh, Srabashi. 1986. “Birds in a Cage: Changes in Bengali Social Life as Recorded in Autobiographies by Women.” Economic and Political Weekly: Review of Women’s Studies (October) pp 88-96.

men s dress politics identity and class
Men’s Dress: Politics, Identity, and Class

Urban upper middle-class men overwhelming choose Western clothing, a legacy of the same history of dress and Nationalist notions of men’s and women’s roles.

Note the dress of Mohammad Yunnus, (founder of Grameen Bank), compared to other men pictured below. Some men choose more traditional forms of dress, particularly for festivals. Compare these choices to the ideas about the meaning behind differences in dress of Gandhi and Ambedkar introduced in Dr. Ananya Vajpeyi’s lecture.

other ways of fitting our institute lectures into the picture
Other ways of Fitting our Institute Lectures Into the Picture

Chakrabarti and the “self-ification” of the “Other” –

Project: Have students think about dress and habitus in their own lives. Are there parallels to this in American dress? What influence does history have over determining women’s dress? Does mobility require sartorial negotiation?

Anna Bigelow’s discussion of “multireligious devotion” – Bangladeshi women’s culture is very syncretic in nature. There is a “shared religious culture,” which includes many preIslamic rituals in women’s lives (ex. marriage ritual, rice rituals based in Lokkhi worship). Tie this in to Vrinda Dalmiya’s lecture on “Environment, Gender and Science.” Why do authors talk about preserving these preIslamic rituals in terms of “sustainability?”

Rozario, Santi and Samuel, Geoffrey. “Gender, Religious Change and Sustainability in Bangladesh. Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol 33, Issue 4, July-August 2010, Pages 354-364.)

islamic modesty garments in rural and urban bangladesh

Reading: Rozario, Santi “The new burqa in Bangladesh: Empowerment or violation of women's rights?” Women’s Studies International Forum, Volume 29, Issue 4, July-August 2006, Pps 368-380

  • Increases in women’s mobility with globalization -- Bangladeshi women developing local modernities
  • Backlash against women’s new roles (in garment industry, at university, microloans)
  • the place of Islamist movements in Bangladeshi politics – moving away from syncretic forms of religion towards a “pure” Islam
  • Santi’s view that “Islamist feminism” is not developing in Bangladesh (In comparison to Egypt watch film “A Veiled Revolution”)
Islamic modesty garments in rural and urban Bangladesh