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Beauty Behind the Burka: Jita Test, Day 4

The overall shape of this outfit is traditional: overblouse, trousers, scarf. However, this young woman has made it fresh and contemporary by choosing an unusual combinations of patterns and fabrics. Photo taken and shared with permission.

We were trying to engage the women in this little study in conversations about motivations for dress and grooming. The use of dress for the purpose of creativity and identity expression is our focus. We hope to correlate this phenomenon with other measures of freedom and empowerment, such as mobility and participation in household decisions. These habits will also form an important backdrop for interpreting the most controversial aspect of the Jita system so far–the fact that Unilever’s Fair and Lovely whitening cream is being sold. Many are offended by the prospect of whitening cream in any context, but most Westerners are shocked by the very idea that beauty and fashion would be practiced among the very poor.

We were reasonably certain that grooming and self-decoration, known to be important in all human societies, would figure in the lives of the poor, just as elsewhere.  Going in, however, we were unsure how to ask about such issues.  So, we just tried to engage with our respondents in a typically feminine topic of conversation:  clothing.  Their femininity and humanity came through in these talks–these were some of the most animated and pleasant conversations we had during the entire trip.  We will use the input from the women in this pilot study to help us formulate questions around identity expression, women’s freedoms, and product use for the larger study we are planning.

These ladies are actually on our research team, striking fashionable poses for the camera. From left, Antora, Nadia, Nill. We especially admired Nadia’s harem pants.

In “the West,” women dress according to variety of motivations: self expression (the most common), seduction (actually more selective and situational than stereotype suggests), to get a job, to mark an occasion (a funeral, a Christmas party, a wedding), to gain approval (from in-laws, from the condo association), to participate in an activity (sports, dancing), and so on. Having the freedom to choose your own attire or manner of grooming is, we think, important.

Because women in Bangladesh have traditionally been confined to the home, often seen only by their husbands and close male kin, and because men have had the power and means to choose women’s clothes, we want to explore this area as a site for potential change, even at the so-called “bottom of the pyramid.” So, yes, as a space where new female freedoms and powers may be expressed.

We were interviewing forty married women in rural Bangladeshi villages.  Based on this talks, we can already see already a difference between the younger and older respondents: the young ones assert they dress to please themselves not their husbands, while the older ones say they dress only for their spouse, even if he has been living in Saudi Arabia for twenty years (as he often has).

Clothing is loving folded and displayed on racks like this one.

One example: a woman in her early twenties, dressed when we spoke to her in cute turquoise trousers with matching headscarf (not hijab, but a draped cloth more like you see in India). Her top was a trimly fitting white turtleneck that said, “Summer Fun. Enjoy the Sun. Surf the Wave. Girls Dream.” (Her husband, clearly a love match, brought it to her from Dubai. His said, “Save Water. Drink Beer.”).  Her favorite color is black: she says it looks smart, goes with everything, can be dressed up or down, and is good any time of the year. (She sounded like a fashion editor.  Anyone for “basic black”?)  She said she buys clothes when she sees something attractive, not when she “needs” them.

I asked her about an array of about four pair of trendy shoes lined up under her clothes rack. She said that shoes were her favorite fashion item. Sound familiar?  This won’t: when she goes out in her burka, the shoes are the only way she has to express herself.  So, they become even more important.  It has not been common to see women in burkas in Bangladesh. This is not Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia.  But burkas have been increasingly in use in recent years.  The women here say that is because conservatives push them to cover what is seen as the rising immodesty of dress underneath, especially among young women.  One young wife, who loves herself in sky blue (and her husband agrees), says she has several burkas in different colors, each with a pair of matching shoes.

I thought this was a particularly interesting combination of patterns and fabrics. The blouse is a kind of georgette, embroidered with a lime green flower, which picks up and contrasts with the green in the very modern pattern on the scarf and trousers. Photo taken and shared with permission.

It’s important to caution, however, that what counts as a burka (or hijab) varies from one country to another.  In Bangladesh, a burka is more like what we would call “a caftan” in the West–just a big overblouse that goes all the way to the floor.  It may be made of any cloth or color (and we saw quite an array of them in the small city near the site).  Bangladeshi women wear the burka over their other clothes, usually a sari but sometimes the overblouse and trousers as pictured at right.  The burka is quite hot and uncomfortable when worn over clothing, I’m told.  Then, the woman may or may not wear a hijab, which is a headscarf that may be pinned to cover the face–but may not cover the face, depending on the woman’s choice.  Most women wear a scarf loosely over their heads; the classification of hijab depends on how closely the scarf covers the head and neck.  In the pictures right and below, the scarf covers the hair and most of the neck, but would not, I don’t think, be seen as a hijab. We did see women with the scarf pinned across their faces, showing only the eyes, as is common in Saudi Arabia (but the clothes were not always black), but we never saw the full body covering with only the net to see through, as one sees in pictures from Afghanistan.

Notice the bold, modern color combination this young woman has selected for her traditional overblouse, trousers, and scarf. Taken and shared with permission.

The most striking thing about the women’s clothing is how colorful it is.  Mind you, these are not ready made garments, but selections made by fabric and pattern when purchased.  There are more traditional patterns worn among the older women and these are quite beautiful.  But the younger women experiment with bolder, more modern patterns and unexpected combinations, such as the one on the right here.  Both of the combinations pictured here were very vivid and modern-looking in life.  One can see the same appreciation for pattern and color we saw in the home furnishings, coupled with a witty and contemporary playfulness in selection and combination.

The sweetly confident mother I spoke of on Day 2 says she always wears a black burka.  She also wears black or brown shoes, so people will “read her” as a “good woman” when she goes out on her own.  She is clearly using this outfit as camouflage to distract from the fact that she is breaking tradition in a more fundamental way by running her own household.

A “good woman” means, of course, a chaste woman (not a kind one or a reliable one). (Is there anywhere in the world where this is not true? We are so thoroughly defined by men’s assessments of our sexual behavior!) It is ironic that this woman, whose husband trusts her completely, would cover her tracks with a black burka, but the husband whose wife has many colors with matching shoes won’t let his wife go anywhere alone because “she might talk to someone else.”

Nearly every home we saw included an elaborate vanity, each with neatly arranged toiletries, combs, and tissues.

We asked the woman whose husband trusts her whether she wears any makeup.  She giggled that she only wears it for her husband–a little pink lipgloss.  “Does her husband like it?” I asked.  The answer: he really likes it, so maybe she should do it more often.  Why doesn’t she?  Because during the observation of the Five Pillars, the ablutions wash it off.  Doesn’t seem worth it.

Pink is her favorite color.  Everyone had a favorite and a strategy. One wore red to attract attention, another wore neutrals to avoid it. One lady wore warm colors because it brightened her skin.

In fact, skin appearance is generally a big concern.  These ladies are heavy users of beauty creams of all  sorts, but are especially enamored of whitening creams. Jita carries the best-seller, Unilever’s Fair and Lovely.  Assessing the reception, use, and impact of this cream will likely be an objective of our study.

One can see the potential to use control over dress as an index to or proxy for, empowerment.  One lady we talked to recounted a sad life story in which she had come to her marriage with property, but her husband, a lazy and self-absorbed man, spent her assets instead of working.  Now, she earns a meager income making crafts, but it is often not enough to buy food.  When she expresses a preference for a color or admires a certain sari, he tells her, in a mean tone, that he will purposely never buy her that color or type of sari so that she will not have the pleasure of wearing something she wants.  Since this woman cannot buy things on her own–because she cannot go to the market without his permission even if she has money–her husband can cruelly abuse her by controlling her clothing.

This is the kind of thing we are looking to try and capture when we say we want to study women’s freedoms within the space of personal appearance.


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