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Twitter has exploded with pictures of women in sarees with the hashtag #SareeTwitter. But what when it is deemed the only ‘respectable’ garment for Indian women?
This week Twitter remained abuzz with new hashtag #SareeTwitter. I also posted a picture just as randomly as I would do if it was about a kurta, a jeans or even a T-shirt.
I have often noticed that the kind of reactions and comments I receive on my public pictures when I am wearing a saree in them and when it is a Western dress, not only vary in their tone and tenor but in perspective too.
Public perception about women is still hugely determined by what a woman wears.
I have an elderly neighbour who is unfortunately confined to the wheelchair, and this can cause huge discomfort wearing a saree in Delhi’s sweaty, hot weather. But she is not ready to give up wearing one, because according to her it is the only ‘respectable’ garment for ‘women from good homes’; salwar-kameez and kurta-pajamas are for the ‘modern, classless, spoilt’ women according to her.
Well, we can say it is her choice, of course, it is but I call it ‘Saree Elitism’, when all other garments in comparison to this one are deemed to be less ‘respectable’, ‘glorified’ or ‘special’.
The stereotype well-established in Hindi films and TV serials seems to spill over in real life too- ‘good women’, would-be wife, leading lady is clad in a saree. If she doesn’t wear one, she eventually is made to wear one to become ‘perfectly suited’ for these ‘good woman’ role.
In contrast, the vamp or the ‘bad woman’ would wear Western clothes, and even if given a saree her blouses and accessories would be westernized to suggest promiscuity and being ‘not good enough’.
Almost in all public forums in India, ‘good Indian women’ are expected to wear only sarees, whereas the fact remains that the Indian women across geographical divides and states traditionally don’t wear only the saree.
Historically speaking saree-like draped women’s clothing can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization. The word ‘saree’ is believed to have evolved from the word ‘sattika’ that finds mention in ancient Jain and Buddhist literature, roughly meaning women’s clothing.
It cannot be denied that saree has not only survived as the only non-stitched clothing in the modern world, but also that it envisaged the culture and traditions of various regions in its weave and drapes.
However the issue is not the garment itself but how it has become almost a ‘symbol’ of ‘Indian culture’, and pitted against the more western, casual and modern attire for women.
The saree is also lent a certain romantic mysticism by making it the symbol of ‘Indian womanhood’. Women like me who wear it just like they wear any other garment saree are often labelled as “unIndian” and “uncultured”, and sometimes “bad women” too. Just because we refuse to crown it as the ultimate garment for women.
One scene from the Shekhar Kapur film Bandit Queen based on the life of the late woman dacoit and later politician Phoolan Devi often comes to me whenever I think of the saree. Wearing a saree, she is running for her life with her lover in the Chambal with great difficulty, and starts wearing the trousers after that incident.
Conventionally the saree in not just India but across various countries in Asia varied according to the region and social structure. Women draped it not as per modesty and/or a garment to “look special or pretty” but as an everyday attire to work in homes, fields and workplaces.
The modern glamorized and urbanied version of the saree promoted mainly by our films and brands for a long while remained trapped in its universalized form; remember the chiffon-clad Yash Raj heroines singing romantic songs on snowy slopes? Now, once again there is a sort of revival where women are trying to incorporate sarees into their wardrobes as a functional garment of choice and not compulsion.
So rules about blouses, petticoats and drapes are being diffused everyday, and sarees with sneakers or a shirt are also becoming trends. The saree is being normalised and denied its pedestal as the ultimate garment, and made more and more into just any other garment.
It is time Indian women are able to not just move, but also run with free legs, and only settle for the ‘gracefulness’ of the restricted space of a petticoat and a saree if it is actually an informed and free choice, and not influenced by ‘tradition’, or even twitter trends or glamourized saree elitism.
Image source: a still from Tumhari Sulu
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Pooja Priyamvada is a columnist, professional translator and an online content and Social Media consultant.
Your article is very well written. The bit about ‘Saree Elitism’ is so true! Keep writing!
Thank you @Ragini
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