10. On fabric, fashion and physical freedom

Guidelines in relation to dressing in Bangladesh were provided before arrival. It was suggested that female volunteers wear local dress – or long, loose, baggy clothes with scarf – in order to fit in more easily and avoid offending local sensibilities. Traditionally, the sari is worn by married women and the shalwar-kameez by younger, unmarried women. (An older, unmarried woman is an unknown entity here! See post 22.)  However, in Dhaka, or as a Westerner, these rules are relaxed and women of all ages wear shalwar kameezes. Only occasionally do I see women veiled or in black burkhas – though there are other styles of burkha in different colours, and not always including a face veil. It is also common in parts of Dhaka to see younger women in jeans and short kurtas – hip-length tops. (To read about a situation in which I found myself, concerning an interesting inversion of dress codes, see post 44.) The shalwar-kameez consists of a very baggy trousers and a long, loose-fitting tunic. To complete the ensemble there is a substantial scarf, called an orna, which is draped around the front to disguise breasts.

Most people buy fabric and get clothes made by one of the city’s many tailors.  I enjoy this entire process, from setting out to market by rickshaw, to browsing through the colourful fabric shops and stalls, to choosing from a huge range of materials and trimmings in a myriad of shades and patterns. Then there is the haggling over prices, the visit to the tailor and finally, the collecting of the finished item – all the time hoping that instructions relating to certain details have been understood.

It is of course also possible, but more expensive, to buy ready-made garments and I have enjoyed purchasing some ready-made shalwar-kameezes in Dhaka’s meandering, market mazes (e.g. New Market and Bongo Bazar). There is a cool (as in air-conditioned) branch of Aarong – the retail division of the NGO BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee) – near where I live.  (For more on BRAC, see post 8.) Aarong aims to create employment for the economically and socially marginalised, through the promotion of traditional Bangladeshi handicrafts, and it stocks a large clothing range, as well as household items and gifts. A visit there makes for a pleasant reprieve from the heat and chaos of Dhaka, as well as a chance to comfortably browse through their beautiful designs and fabrics.

Also in my neighbourhood is a shop called Jatra (the name refers to the stylised theatre performance of travelling troupes of actors). The proprietor Anusheh Anadil is a singer with the popular folk fusion group Bangla. As well as using traditional materials and fabrics, Jatra has been successful in fusing Bangladeshi traditional styles with western styles. This has resulted in some gorgeous designs – particularly popular with younger Bangladeshis. (To read about one of the many awards won by Anusheh Anadil see this Daily Star piece.)

Every day on my way to work I pass Prabartana (meaning ‘act of promotion’), which not only stocks indigenous crafts and fabrics but also, amongst other activities, helps develop and support the hand-loom industry of Bangladesh. In addition, Prabartana carries fashion designer ranges. (It also houses a relaxing restaurant – Adda – for more on which see post 26.)

Aranya is an inviting fair trade shop in Banani, founded by the admirable Ruby Ghuznavi, a strong supporter of Bangladeshi craft. Aranya operates on a shared partnership basis with craftspeople, guaranteeing fair wages. Ruby and her colleagues have revived natural dyeing techniques in Bangladesh. I bought a lovely indigo-dyed shalwar-kameez here – you can see it in photographs at end of post 50 – photo no. 72. (For more on indigo see post 24.) The inspirational Ruby Ghuznavi is lauded for her contribution to Bangladeshi life and culture. As well as her role in reviving natural dyes she is a well-known social activist, researcher and international crafts expert. There are of course many other shops that help support indigenous weaving and craft. For example, I read a story about ten shops that came together under the banner of Deshi Dosh’ in this cause.

The clothes are a pleasure to wear – though as a westerner I could never wear them quite as elegantly as local women do. I sometimes wish that I had an opportunity or occasion to wear the gorgeous saris and the stunning designs I see advertised, or in shops e.g. the creations of Kuhu Plomondon, or those of Bibi Russell, a renowned Bangladeshi former model and now a fashion designer and promoter of Bangladeshi textiles and craftspeople – particularly hand-weavers. You can see some of her ‘fashion for development’ here.

While I love wearing the shalwar-kameez in all its brightly coloured and multi-patterned varieties, there are times that I feel restricted. In everyday and casual situations it can feel as though I am wearing too much clothing – particularly in such hot and humid weather. It is not the kind of attire that you would feel comfortable in going for a walk for example – not that it would be easy to go for a brisk walk in Dhaka – between pollution, heat, traffic and the inevitable audience. On my way to work I often see local women ‘power-walking’ in parks/green areas, but always in full shalwar-kameez/sari and always in groups. (I was later to see that at the beach too, women swim fully-clothed.) What I miss most is feeling the power of physical freedom – something I took for granted until now. My own cultural norms kicking in, I suppose. There are days when I long to put on a swimsuit, shorts, t-shirt and sandals – my favourite clothes on a summer’s day at home – and go for a walk, jog or cycle (without being stared at) and then, at the end of it all, dive into an oncoming ocean wave. From my enquiries so far, it would appear that women, in general, don’t participate in much sport here. In school yards and playing fields it is always the little boys I see engaged in games.

Of course there are a number of expatriate clubs and hotels in Dhaka that have gyms and swimming pools, but I had decided from the beginning to forego these in an effort to immerse myself in local culture, and to experience, in so far as is possible, the ‘real’ Bangladesh for the short time that I will be here.

Postscript: Later on, a year began to seem like a very long time and after almost five months without exercise, I capitulated and went to the Bagha (British Aid Guest House Association) Club. And despite not being in the outdoors, I will never forget how good that first gym session felt. Although the pool (outdoor) is small and doesn’t lend itself to doing ‘lengths’, it felt incredible to be back in the water. Plunging into that naturally sun-warmed pool reignited my long-lasting love affair with water. I could physically feel the release from the frustrations of work and the noise of the city. Moving freely through the water, unencumbered by layers of clothing, I began to feel like myself again. I could almost write an ode to the pure joy of water – a truly remarkable substance.

Life inside the high walls of the air-conditioned club, with its friendly staff, western-style menus, decent coffee, alcohol, good internet connection, tennis courts, gym, outdoor swimming pool and small library, is in complete contrast to life outside its walls. It’s like a tiny cultural (western) oasis in the city, but I’m always happy when I leave this bubble too. And while I feel a certain level of dissonance in relation to this inside/outside experience, I’m justifying my membership on the grounds of health: if I feel physically strong, I will be able to engage and participate more fully in my Bangladeshi life and work.

I’m including a few photographs hereunder. There will be some of me in shalwar-kameez later. (Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work :(. I have replaced them with links to post-specific web-album slideshows until such time as I can find a better solution.)

Click on image below for PHOTO SLIDESHOW related to this post (55 photographs in all). Enjoy!

1 Rain-view from induction flat

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2 responses to “10. On fabric, fashion and physical freedom

  1. Hi Ann, Thank you for sharing your experience. I visit Bangladesh regularly and am also Irish- but mainly based in Sligo! Perhaps when I’m back there in November, if you are still based in Dhaka, we can meet up to swap stories and share a plunge together..!

    • Thank you for commenting Tara. Unfortunately, I’m no longer based in Dhaka: I’m back in Ireland. Perhaps our paths will cross here……your research sounds very interesting! I would love to hear more about what you’re doing in Bangladesh. Swapping stories sounds good, though sharing a plunge together might be pushing it! (Mind you, having said that, I have vowed to get back in the ocean this year. Thanks for reminding me! Brrrr….) Thanks again for getting in touch. Ann

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