Friday, May 20, 2016

Ask Firangi Bahu: "How do I get my confidence back to wear a saree without fear?"

Sharing a letter from a reader...

"Dear Alexandra,

Recently I read your article from 2013 on western women wearing sarees. I live in the Pacific Northwest and am of Hispanic heritage, and I've loved India and its culture for a very long time. Because of my dark skin, hair and facial structure I've been mistaken for someone with an Indian background constantly, and it makes me very happy. 

Recently, I went to a masquerade in a very beautiful gown my brother got me when he came back from India. I never felt so beautiful, walking out of the hotel I felt amazing and powerful and extremely comfortable.​ I felt so confident, until I went into the dance...

So many people were staring at me and while yes, the majority of it was smile and positive, I had one person come up to me and tell me I needed to get my own culture. And as I left the venue, a had a man grab my arm and as me if I was looking for a bong. I was scared and angry. I am a mixed race child - I have my cultures that I love and honor very much, but this was a blow to me.

This was over 2 months ago, I've wanted to wear this outfit and I'd love to purchase others. But then I get too scared and I feel like I will be attacked for it.

How do I get my confidence back to wear a saree without fear?"


Dear readers, what advice can you give to this young woman?
Have you ever been attacked or questioned for wearing Indian attire?
If so, what would your response be to such people?
What tips can you give regarding wearing Indian attire confidently?
Do you think Indian attire should be reserved to Indians only or can everyone wear it with pride?


  1. I don't really have "tips" for the LW because our experiences and background are very different, but I'll share my thoughts as a white woman married to an Indian man.

    I'm a social justice academic/activist, which has informed much of how my thinking on non-Indians wearing Indian clothes has evolved over the years... When I first met my husband, I wanted to wear all of the pretty things - I bought suits, fashion bindis and bangles because I was captivated with how beautiful they were. I didn’t really think about the implications of it. 4 years later, half of my closet is filled with saris, jewelry, and packs upon packs of red bindis from visits to India. A lot of this stuff has been given to me by my MIL or other in-laws. My views are very different now though - I don't wear them unless I'm with my husband, in India or going to an Indian event in the States. People who see me walking down the street don’t know my backstory and my involvement in Indian culture so I personally don't want to perpetuate the idea that white women can wear whatever they want, without the discrimination and oppression. No one makes comments to me that I "smell like curry" if I wear that stuff in public alone. However, I've seen these things happen to South Asian women in our community (even though we live in the tech hub of the PNW that we jokingly call "Choti Bharat"). I get fawned over while these women are seen as “too traditional”. It’s just not a double standard I want to perpetuate.

    Indian culture is a big part of my life now, and I’m sure it will become even more so when we have kids. Of course, I’ll wear saris for super nice dates with my husband or cultural events like Diwali or Karva Chauth - there’s no point for them to just sit there. If we bring my white friends and family to something like that, we encourage them to wear the Indian clothes they bought for our wedding. But I try to be really intentional and respectful and think about how people will see what I’m wearing. Context really matters.

  2. I’m so sorry to hear about your bad experience!
    Personally, I can totally relate. I love Indian clothing. If it weren’t for the staring questions from others, I would wear churidars daily, even here in the states.
    When I was younger I even used to wear bindi and silver kolusu daily! But similar to you, the self-consciousness set in.
    One of my friends is an Israeli expat that lives with her family in south India. She goes to an alternative school mainly with other foreigners and modern-type north Indians, and even they tease her for her love of Indian clothes and dressing traditionally!
    I’ve often thought how hypocritical it is—just think of all the different (sometimes crazy) clothing, styles, and fashions of western design there are out there today. Many people won’t blink an eye at that, but when someone dresses traditionally, say in saree, abaya, headscarf, or churidar, it illicits negative attention. I have a Muslim friend in the states who has to contend with that, and she is dressing from within the parameters of her own culture!
    You can’t change others; the only one you can change is yourself. Much easier said than done, I know! But if you can bring yourself to a mental state where you don’t care what others think, you will be liberated to wear saree in public—or do anything else for that matter! It’s tough, and something I am constantly trying to work on myself. But by ignoring others comments, you remove their power and invest it in yourself.
    Best wishes to you and I hope you will have the courage to wear sarees and whatever else you love to wear :-)

  3. @Kristin Gupta I really appreciated your response. You've clearly articulated many of the reasons I've felt hesitant to wear traditional Indian clothes out & about here (also PNW!) without my partner or his family.

  4. It's not easy! I don't know about your partner's family, but my in-laws ideally want me to wear Indian clothes every day... it's a very fine line when you're deeply involved in the community (especially outside of India) but also committed to being anti-racist/anti-colonialist. If we sat down with say, my MIL and had a conversation about this, I'm sure we wouldn't agree. She just wants me to be Indian as possible.

    Outside those of us who have Indian partners/families though, I see many people who just say they're respecting Indian culture by dressing up in a sari, henna or whatever else (I spend a lot of time on a large college campus where bindis definitely had their heyday a couple of years ago). It's been said a billion times, but the personal really is political. We live in a white supremacist system that devalues South Asian women and their traditions. I think we have to be much more rigorous in decolonializing our lives and asking ourselves why we wear what we wear and how we benefit from it.

  5. When Indians can wear non-Indian clothes and consume non-Indian media and speak American slang and take democracy from the west and cuisine from the middle east (from naan to gravies), why can't the non-Indians wear Indian clothes?

    I honestly do not know why people make such a big deal of it and lay claim to their culture when the reality is that we are all borrowing from each other constantly. How much of Indian culture is pure Indian culture really and belongs exclusively to Indians without external influences?

    I wouldn't care and wear what I please. I am not an American or an European. That does not stop me from wearing western clothes or learning French or eating pasta.


Respectful comments only, please! (That means you, anonymous.)

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
© Madh Mama. All rights reserved.