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What’s in a sari?

  • Published at 12:02 am September 4th, 2019
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Shopping has started gaining momentum at Ishwardi Benarasi Palli in Pabna ahead of Ed-ul-Fitr Dhaka Tribune

Women do not have to dress just to please men

In a world where body-shaming is being frowned upon, and body positivity is the talk of the town, the news media of Bangladesh has been blowing up over discussions regarding a recent piece on the connotations of sari.

Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed, belonging to an educated and progressive mindset, has exhibited clear signs of sexism, racism, misogyny, and patriarchy in his article “Sari” which was published on August 30.    

Women, not just in this country, but all over the world, are vigorously criticized by men. Sayeed’s article gives an intense description explaining why Bengali women “must” wear sari, as it conceals the “flaws” of a woman who does not have the “perfect body.”

Sayeed has broadcasted the sexual representation of a “sexy deshi girl” claiming that wearing a sari makes one more desirable, flirtatious, sensual, and thus “beddable.” 

While many perceived the write-up as chauvinistic, some praised it, claiming the piece had its own merit and “aesthetic appeal.” Those who praised the piece, falling for its seemingly poetic appeal, missed out on the underlying sexism this piece may have promoted.

The author explains how the sari is adorable only on women whose bodies are “soft” and “tender.” This kind of objectifying language throughout the article reinforces the age-old stereotypes of submissive feminine beauty. 

According to the author, sari turns a woman irresistible -- this subtly perpetuates the message that feminine beauty is only sexual/cultural capital, and hence it ignores a woman’s intellectual merit. 

The whole argument reinforces the typical patriarchal fantasy of women as seductresses, and that draping their curves with a six-yard fabric may help them in that game.

In the attempt to prove his point that only women of the Indian sub-continent can carry a sari as beautifully, Sayeed did not hesitate to objectify women from other regions of the world.

In his perspective, the sari is not made for African, English, or German women, as they are either largely built, or because they dress immodestly -- a viewpoint that is nothing if not racist.

I see little or no difference between his statement and the absurd claims often made that one’s attire is to be blamed for sexual violence. 

The problem of further intensifies when Sayeed refers to women’s height of this region as a major drawback, which the sari somehow makes up by focusing on the curves. 

This authoritarian desire to instruct what a woman should wear denies the space for individual freedom or comfort. The author accuses modern women of lacking in taste for not wearing saris on a regular basis. 

While taste itself is a construction, Sayeed’s article is full of normative gender expectations defining how a woman should appear, act, or represent herself. It promotes a speculative voyeuristic look onto the female body, one which exists for the “male gaze.” 

It ultimately ends up reinforcing a female image that invites the male gaze -- it is all for the man to speculate, investigate, fantasize, and be seduced. 

Rabita Rahman is a Lecturer, Institute of Modern Languages (IML), Jagannath University.