What women wear
One would think that a threat to our existence, for example, climate change, would bring us together. Needless to say, it didn't. That doesn't mean there's nothing that people care deeply and passionately about.
The trick to finding them is to think of things that should actually be nobody's business but your own. Such as what clothing one wears as a woman.
Fellow females will resonate with me on how buying and wearing clothes is rarely as simple as buying and wearing what you like. It's actually quite a burden, since one has to appease the subjective tastes and views of every single person who'll see you wearing them. They'll have an opinion, and many won't keep it to themselves. We could choose to not care and do as we please, but it's not that simple. It's a deep-rooted problem.
Not to sound like a broken record but, it starts at home. In Bangladesh, the first and most prominent restriction to the range of women's clothing is the idea of modesty. What's problematic about this is when and how this idea is introduced to young, impressionable girls. It's usually when they start experiencing puberty – an inherently sensitive time. When struggling to adjust to the sudden changes in their body, they often feel a sense of urgency coming from older family members that say they have something shameful to hide.
Aside from all the confusion, frustration, sudden pain and gore, young girls also find the time to start exploring who they are and how they'd like to express themselves. For many, this includes a newfound interest in their appearance and fashion.
Today, fashion trends are global. We are exposed to international pop culture, and presently, local media follows global fashion trends as well. But families and societies restrict us from being able to participate ourselves. Being able to wear what we feel confident in brings forth the satisfaction of being able to express ourselves and changes how we approach life and work.
Grade 11 student of European Standard School Fairooj Rushmila Suhita's experience tells us how important it is to today's youth to have control over their choice of attire.
"Having the liberty to choose my clothes makes me feel assured about my identity and self-concept. When I am forced to wear clothes that don't align with my own fashion sense, not only do I feel violated but also that my body isn't worthy of being seen and appreciated. It affects how I carry myself back home to feel horrible when I don't feel pretty enough in the pictures or can't recognise myself because the clothes don't resonate with me," Fairooj shares.
It is true that we are a long way away from an accepting society where we can all be ourselves. But this is very rarely, if ever, constructively explained to young girls. The usual approach is to shame them for their choices. This may include implications of how wanting to dress a certain way is "inappropriate" or attention seeking.
When young girls and women do make the choice to dress modestly or based on their personal and/or religious values, that too comes with barriers, as illustrated by Jarin Tasnim Raka's experience, who is a Master's student at North South University.
"A few months into university, I made the choice to wear the hijab. Immediately, I started receiving unexpected comments. A 'friend' asked if this was a trick to make my face look thinner, another asked if I was wearing 'fashion hijabs' to participate in a trend. Some people asked questions like if I was wearing the hijab, why I was at a concert, or why I wore makeup. At times, my family asked me to take my hijab off on our way to a dawat because it didn't align with the values of the people we were visiting and I apparently had to adhere to theirs," recalls Jarin.
Strangers' concern over clothing is a source of inconvenience in the daily lives of Bangladeshi women. Jarin shared an instance where, during the act of crossing a road, someone called for her attention and asked her to fix her orna. Women on a daily basis are informed of slip-ups in their clothing such as visible straps in very accusatory tones, which I believe is unnecessary and done just for the sake of doing so.
When left to feel ashamed of their choices, young girls often start believing there's something wrong with their bodies, which is why they must always be carefully concealed. My mother's urgency to hide my development made me ashamed of my body when I was going through puberty.
"There were times I was slut-shamed by teachers for not wearing an orna at school even though I was wearing extremely loose kameez. The idea of covering up my chest made me feel like my growth was something to hide, so I would slouch in order for my clothes to seem looser. This practice led to posture issues that made me look and feel underconfident in public spaces," shares Rasmisa Haque*, a grade 12 student of Viqarunnisa Noon School and College.
The sheer emphasis on how women dress contributes to their safety, or more frankly the idea that they need to dress a certain way not to be sexually harassed is a problematic narrative in and of itself. Exposure to such narrative, coming especially from her close ones, demoralises the woman herself.
It's natural to internalise the values of the people around you when you're exposed to them from a young age. In this context, women start to feel as if it is somehow their responsibility to make sure they aren't harassed. In the all too common scenario that she is, she may blame herself for it, because she had failed to dress or act a certain way.
Restrictions fall even heavier on women who do not have the much glorified, conventionally "beautiful", thin body type. When they exercise their right to dress how they feel confident, often they are asked not to wear certain clothes because they would look "provocative" or "it wouldn't suit them as it does thinner girls."
It's hard enough to be confident and feel beautiful when all around you, beauty is described to be something you're not.
Nayara Noor, a student of Brac University, believes that parental regard is crucial for young girls to build a strong base that upholds lifelong self-confidence. She says, "Parents are the ones you seek the most validation from as a young child. Constantly being told that nothing you wear makes you look good takes a huge toll on you where you constantly tear down your own appearance and hence struggle with low self-esteem."
"The problem with telling people it's 'for their safety' is that we're having conversations with the wrong group of people. If you're not safe wearing certain clothes then you shouldn't be policed, the person who is the threat should be policed. Instead of shaming their daughters, parents should teach their sons.This is a problem that's beyond bad parenting or sexism, it feeds into more serious issues like rape culture and victim-blaming," Nayara adds.
Moreover, little things about how young girls are brought up can have lifelong negative impacts on their mental health and sense of self-worth.
The idea that it is women who "provoke" or "seduce" to warrant inappropriate behaviour from men, makes allowances for society to objectify and view a woman differently according to how she dresses, implying once again that a woman's worth is determined by her appearance, and not that she too, is human.
People are often adamant that women must always dress in cultural attire. "Western clothing" and "immodest/inappropriate clothing" are terms used interchangeably. The same is not expected from men, in fact, the norm for men's casual wear is Western clothing. A bride donning a gown at her wedding is sure to face controversy from her relatives and/or on social media, while a suit is perfectly acceptable for the groom. Why are women expected to carry culture on their backs with their clothing?
Presently, it's a common practice for women to defy and rebel against said restrictions and norms and prioritise their own choices. As much as we want to fight on, it is quite tiring to keep up, as apparent from Ramisa's experience, "As I got older, I started standing up for my own clothing choices. This resulted in multiple feuds with my family. It was extremely draining to constantly fight with the people who decide everything about my life, but it's something I have to keep on doing for myself."
In reality, trying to defy these restrictions is seldom a pleasant experience. It is hard to feel confident when relatives, teachers, elders in general jab at your attire and shame you for it.
It is a big step for most girls to try to heal from the damage done to their self-esteem from years of being told by media and society that she cannot dress in certain ways or deserve to be fashionable. When her attempts to overcome this is squashed with pointless restrictions, displays of negative judgment, and narrow-minded accusatory comments, we have all failed women as a society.
Amrin Tasnim Rafa is always confused, it's literally her dominant personality trait. This is maybe her email, she can't be sure: firstname.lastname@example.org