Wednesday, June 26, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Where’s your orna?

Clothing should not be a tool of societal coercion, and women should have the autonomy to make their own decisions about what they wear

Update : 20 Oct 2023, 12:01 PM

In a recent visit to BIRDEM Hospital, my quest for a routine medical examination unfolded into an unsettling encounter, shedding light on a pervasive issue that often lurks in the shadows: Societal harassment of women. While discussions on harassment often revolve around men's behaviour in public spaces, this troubling incident underscores the fact that the problem transcends gender boundaries.

It all began innocently enough, with a seemingly harmless query from a female office assistant at the hospital: "You didn't wear an orna did you?" 

The question, initially bewildering, marked the commencement of a series of unsettling events that exposed the deeply entrenched cultural norms and expectations that continue to plague women in Bangladesh and many other societies.

As I ventured to secure a seat in the waiting area, I was met with inexplicable resistance. Empty chairs appeared to be mysteriously claimed, leaving me standing. The situation escalated when two women approached me, unsolicited, to offer their advice on my clothing and appearance. Their judgment extended to my body and life choices, casting a shadow on my self-esteem.

It's crucial to recognize that wearing an orna or any form of clothing to cover one's body should always remain a matter of personal choice, a decision that reflects an individual's comfort, values, and identity. 

While some women may choose to wear it as an expression of their faith or cultural identity, it should never be imposed upon them by society. The orna or any clothing should not be a tool of societal coercion, and women should have the autonomy to make their own decisions about what they wear, free from judgment or pressure. 

It is this freedom of choice that will ultimately help in dismantling the norms that perpetuate harassment, allowing women to live their lives authentically and confidently.

But these incidents are not isolated anomalies. They are part of a broader pattern in which women frequently experience societal harassment in various forms. It ranges from the insidious act of body-shaming to the policing of behaviour, and it even extends to criticism of women's choices in relationships and careers. 

Within workplaces, the persistent gender-based discrimination, originating from both male and female colleagues, erodes women's autonomy and stifles their individuality, ultimately leaving them disempowered and disheartened.

This disconcerting episode underscores an urgent need for Bangladeshi society to grapple with the intricate interplay between tradition and modernity. Open and constructive dialogues must take centre stage as the bedrock of progress, where conversations scrutinize and challenge traditional gender norms that unfairly saddle women with the exclusive burden of modesty and propriety.

Moreover, establishing robust support systems for those who encounter harassment or discrimination is imperative. These mechanisms should encompass secure reporting channels, legal protections, and easily accessible counseling and support services. 

Only through the implementation of these measures can an environment be created where individuals feel safe and protected, granting them the freedom to exercise personal autonomy without fear.

To combat this deeply ingrained issue, society must collectively confront cultural beliefs and norms that perpetuate harassment, encouraging respect, empathy, and acceptance for diverse lifestyles and choices. Advocating for education on gender equality and implementing safe reporting mechanisms empowers individuals to speak out against societal harassment.

Ultimately, championing individuality and celebrating diverse paths in life is essential, striving to create a society where every person can live authentically, free from the shackles of societal judgments and expectations.

This is an opportunity for Bangladesh to embark on a path of self-reflection and reconciliation with these cultural clashes, propelling the nation toward a more equitable and inclusive society. 

Here, every individual is treated with the dignity and respect they inherently deserve, regardless of gender or clothing choices. Bangladesh stands at a crossroads, and it is the collective responsibility of its citizens to choose the path of progress, unity, and equality.

In the exploration of societal harassment and the transformative power of choice, the orna emerges as a symbol of profound significance. Beyond its role as a representation of cultural heritage, it serves as a beacon of empowerment and individual agency. This journey reveals the uncomfortable reality of societal harassment faced by women in Bangladesh and beyond, transcending gender boundaries.

To pave the way for an inclusive and equitable society, it is imperative that we collectively challenge deeply entrenched cultural norms. Embracing principles of respect, empathy, and acceptance is key to fostering an environment where every individual can confidently live according to their authentic selves, free from the constraints of judgment or coercion. 

The orna, as a potent symbol of empowerment and choice, reminds society that change is not only attainable but also essential for crafting a society where each person is afforded the dignity and respect they inherently deserve, regardless of their gender or clothing preferences.

Nasrin Pervin is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of English and Modern Languages, North South University.

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