Essay Clothes India

Clothing in India varies depending on the different ethnicity, geography, climate and cultural traditions of the people of each region of India. Historically, male and female clothing has evolved from simple Langotas, and loincloths to cover the body to elaborate costumes not only used in daily wear but also on festive occasions as well as rituals and dance performances. In urban areas, western clothing is common and uniformly worn by people of all social levels. India also has a great diversity in terms of weaves, fibers, colours and material of clothing. Colour codes are followed in clothing based on the religion and ritual concerned. The clothing in India also encompasses the wide variety of Indian embroidery.


Main article: History of clothing in India

India's recorded history of clothing goes back to the 5th millennium BC in the Indus Valley civilization where cotton was spun, woven and dyed. Bone needles and wooden spindles have been unearthed in excavations at the site.[1] The cotton industry in ancient India was well developed, and several of the methods survive until today. Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian described Indian cotton as "a wool exceeding in beauty and goodness that of sheep".[2] Indian cotton clothing was well adapted to the dry, hot summers of the subcontinent. The grand epic Mahabharata, composed by about 400 BC, tells of the god Krishna staving off Draupadi's disrobing by bestowing an unending saree upon her.[3][better source needed] Most of the present knowledge of ancient Indian clothing comes from rock sculptures and paintings in cave monuments such as Ellora. These images show dancers and goddesses wearing what appears to be a dhoti wrap, a predecessor to the modern sari.The upper castes dressed themselves in fine muslin and wore gold ornaments[4] The Indus civilisation also knew the process of silk production. Recent analysis of Harappan silk fibres in beads have shown that silk was made by the process of reeling, a process known only to China until the early centuries AD.[5]

According to the Greek historian Arrian:[6]

"The Indians use linen clothing, as says Nearchus, made from the flax taken from the trees, about which I have already spoken. And this flax is either whiter in colour than any other flax, or the people being black make the flax appear whiter. They have a linen frock reaching down halfway between the knee and the ankle, and a garment which is partly thrown round the shoulders and partly rolled round the head. The Indians who are very well-off wear earrings of ivory; for they do not all wear them. Nearchus says that the Indians dye their beards various colours; some that they may appear white as the whitest, others dark blue; others have them red, others purple, and others green. Those who are of any rank have umbrellas held over them in the summer. They wear shoes of white leather, elaborately worked, and the soles of their shoes are many-coloured and raised high, in order that they may appear taller."

Evidence from the 1st century AD shows some cultural exchanges with the Greeks. Indo-Greek influence is seen in the Greco-Buddhist art of the time. The Buddhas were portrayed as wearing the Greek himation, which is the forerunner of the modern saṃghāti that forms a part of the Kasaya of Buddhist monks.[7] During the Maurya and Gupta period, the people continued to wear the three piece unstitched clothing as in Vedic times. The main items of clothing were the Antariya made of white cotton or muslin, tied to the waist by a sash called Kayabandh and a scarf called the Uttariya used to drape the top half of the body.[citation needed]

New trade routes, both overland and overseas, created a cultural exchange with Central Asia and Europe. Romans bought indigo for dyeing and cotton cloth as articles of clothing. Trade with China via the Silk road introduced silk textiles into India. The Chinese had a monopoly in the silk trade and kept its production process a trade secret. However, this monopoly ended when, according to legend, a Chinese princess smuggled mulberry seeds and silkworms in her headdress when she was sent to marry the king of Khotan (present day Xinjiang).[8] From there, the production of silk spread throughout Asia, and by AD 140, the practise had been established in India. Chanakya's treatise on public administration, the Arthashastra written around 3rd century BC, briefly describes the norms followed in silk weaving.[9]

A variety of weaving techniques were employed in ancient India, many of which survive to the present day. Silk and cotton were woven into various designs and motifs, each region developing its distinct style and technique. Famous among these weaving styles were the Jamdani, Kasika vastra of Varanasi, butidar and the Ilkal saree.[citation needed]Brocades of silk were woven with gold and silver threads and were deeply influenced by Persian designs. The Mughals played a vital role in the enhancement of the art, and the paisley and Latifa Buti are fine examples of Mughal influence[10]

Dyeing of clothes in ancient India was practised as an art form. Five primary colours (Suddha-varnas) were identified and complex colours (Misra – varnas) were categorised by their many hues. Sensitivity was shown to the most subtlest of shades; the ancient treatise, Vishnudharmottara states five tones of white, namely Ivory, Jasmine, August moon, August clouds after the rain and the conch shell.[11] The commonly used dyes were indigo(Nila), madder red and safflower.[12][a] The technique of mordant dyeing was prevalent in India since the second millennium BC.[13]Resist dyeing and Kalamkari techniques were hugely popular and such textiles were the chief exports.

Integral to the history of Indian clothing is the Kashmiri shawl. Kashmiri shawl varieties include the Shahtoosh, popularly known as the 'ring shawl' and the pashmina wool shawls, historically called pashm. Textiles of wool finds mention as long back as the Vedic times in association with Kashmir; the Rig Veda refers to the Valley of Sindh as being abundant in sheep,[citation needed][b] and the god Pushan has been addressed as the 'weaver of garments',[14] which evolved into the term pashm for the wool of the area. Woolen shawls have been mentioned in Afghan texts of the 3rd century BC, but reference to the Kashmir work is done in the 16th century AD. The sultan of Kashmir, Zain-ul-Abidin is generally credited with the founding of the industry.[15] A story says that the Roman emperor Aurelian received a purple pallium from a Persian king, made of Asian wool of the finest quality.[citation needed] The shawls were dyed red or purple, red dye procured from cochineal insects and purple obtained by a mixture of red and blue from indigo[16] The most prized kashmiri shawls were the Jamavar and the Kanika Jamavar, woven using weaving spools with coloured thread called kani and a single shawl taking more than a year for completion and requiring 100 to 1500 kanis depending on the degree of elaboration.[14]

Indian textiles were traded from ancient times with China, Southeast Asia and the Roman Empire. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea mentions mallow cloth, muslins and coarse cottons.[17][c] Port towns like Masulipatnam and Barygaza won fame for its production of muslins and fine cloth. Trade with the Arabs who were middlemen in the spice trade between India and Europe brought Indian textiles into Europe, where it was favored by royalty in the 17th–18th century.[18] The Dutch, French and British East India Companies competed for monopoly of the spice trade in the Indian Ocean, but were posed with the problem of payment for spices, which was in gold or silver. To counter this problem, bullion was sent to India to trade for the textiles, a major portion of which were subsequently traded for spices in other trade posts, which then were traded along with the remaining textiles in London. Printed Indian calicos, chintz, muslins and patterned silk flooded the English market and in time the designs were copied onto imitation prints by English textile manufacturers, reducing the dependence on India.[19]

The British rule in India and the subsequent oppression following the Bengal Partition sparked a nationwide Swadeshi movement. One of the integral aims of the movement was to attain self-sufficiency, and to promote Indian goods while boycotting British goods in the market.[20] This was idealised in the production of Khadi. Khadi and its products were encouraged by the nationalist leaders over British goods, while also being seen as a means to empower the rural artisans.[21]

Female clothing[edit]

In India, women's clothing varies widely and is closely associated with the local culture, religion and climate.

Traditional Indian clothing for women in the north and east are saris worn with choli tops; a long skirt called a lehenga or pavada worn with choli and a dupatta scarf to create an ensemble called a gagra choli; or salwar kameez suits, while many south Indian women traditionally wear sari and children wear pattu langa.[citation needed] Saris made out of silk are considered the most elegant. Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, is one of India's fashion capitals.[citation needed] In many rural parts of India, traditional clothing is worn. Women wear a sari, a long sheet of colourful cloth, draped over a simple or fancy blouse. Little girls wear a pavada. Both are often patterned. Bindi is a part of women's make-up.[citation needed]Indo-western clothing is the fusion of Western and Subcontinental fashion. Other clothing includes the churidar, gamucha, kurti and kurta, and sherwani.

The traditional style of clothing in India varies with male or female distinctions. This is still followed in the rural areas, though is changing in the urban areas. Girls before puberty wear a long skirt (called langa/paawada in Andhra) and a short blouse, called a choli, above it.

Traditional clothing[edit]

Sari and wrapped garments[edit]

Main article: Sari

A saree or sari[22][23] is a female garment in the Indian subcontinent.[24] A sari is a strip of unstitched cloth, ranging from four to nine meters in length, that is draped over the body in various styles. These include: Sambalpuri Saree from East, Mysore silk and Ilkal of Karnataka and, Kanchipuram of Tamil Nadu from South, Paithani from West and Banarasi from North among others.[25] The most common style is for the sari to be wrapped around the waist, with one end then draped over the shoulder baring the midriff.[24] The sari is usually worn over a petticoat.[26] Blouse may be "backless" or of a halter neck style. These are usually more dressy with a lot of embellishments such as mirrors or embroidery and may be worn on special occasions. Women in the armed forces, when wearing a sari uniform, don a half-sleeve shirt tucked in at the waist. Teenage girls wear half-sarees, a three piece set consisting of a langa, a choli and a stole wrapped over it like a saree. Women usually wear full sarees. Indian wedding saris are typically red or pink, a tradition that goes back to India's pre-modern history.[27]

Saris are usually known with different names in different places. In Kerala, white saris with golden border, are known as kavanis and are worn on special occasions. A simple white sari, worn as a daily wear, is called a mundu. Saris are called pudavai in Tamil Nadu. In Karnataka, saris are called Seere.[28] The traditional production of handloom sarees is important to economic development in rural communities.[29]

Mundum Neriyathum

Main article: Mundum Neriyathum

Mundum Neriyathum is the oldest remnant of the ancient form of the saree which covered only the lower part of the body, a traditional dress of women in Kerala, South India.[30][31] The basic traditional piece is the mundu or lower garment which is the ancient form of the saree denoted in Malayalam as 'Thuni' (meaning cloth), while the neriyathu forms the upper garment the mundu.[30][31]

Mekhela Sador

Main article: Mekhela chador

Mekhela Sador (Assamese: মেখেলা চাদৰ) is the traditional Assamese dress worn by women. It is worn by women of all ages.

There are three main pieces of cloth that are draped around the body.

The bottom portion, draped from the waist downwards is called the Mekhela (Assamese: মেখেলা). It is in the form of a sarong—very wide cylinder of cloth—that is folded into pleats to fit around the waist and tucked in. The folds are to the right, as opposed to the pleats in the Nivi style of the saree, which are folded to the left. Strings are never used to tie the mekhela around the waist, though an underskirt with a string is often used.

The top portion of the three-piece dress, called the Sador (Assamese: চাদৰ), is a long length of cloth that has one end tucked into the upper portion of the Mekhela and the rest draped over and around the rest of the body. The Sador is tucked in triangular folds. A fitted blouse is worn to cover the breasts.

The third piece is called a Riha, which is worn under the Sador. It is narrow in width. This traditional dress of the Assamese women are very famous for their exclusive patterns on the body and the border. Women wear them during important religious and ceremonious occasions of marriage. Riha is worn exactly like a Sador and is used as Orni.

Salwaar Kameez[edit]

Main article: Salwar kameez

Salwar is a generic description of the lower garment incorporating the Punjabi salwar, Sindhi suthan, Dogri pajamma (also called suthan) and the Kashmiri suthan.

The salwar kameez is the traditional wear of women in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh and is called the Punjabi suit which is most common in the northwestern part of India (Punjab region). The Punjabi suit also includes the "churidaar" and "kurta" ensemble which is also popular in Southern India where it is known as the "churidaar".[32]

The salwar kameez has become the most popular dress for females. It consists of loose trousers (the salwar) narrow at the ankles, topped by a tunic top (the kameez).[33] Women generally wear a dupatta or odani (Veil) with salwar kameez to cover their head and shoulders.[33] It is always worn with a scarf called a dupatta, which is used to cover the head and drawn over the bosom.

The material for the dupatta usually depends upon that of the suit, and is generally of cotton, georgette, silk, chiffon among others.[citation needed] This dress is worn by almost every teenage girl in lieu of western clothes. Many actresses wear the salwar kameez in Bollywood movies.

The suthan, similar to the salwar is common in Sindh where it is worn with the cholo[33] and Kashmir where it is worn with the Phiran.[34] The Kashmiri phiran is similar to the Dogri pajamma. The patiala salwar is an exaggeratedly wide version of the salwar, its loose pleats stitched together at the bottom.[35][36]


Main article: Churidar

Churidaar is a variation on the salwar, loose above the knees and tightly fitted to the calf below. While the salwar is baggy and caught in at the ankle, the churidar fits below the knees with horizontal gathers near the ankles.[37] The churidaar can be worn with any upper garment such as a long kurta, which goes below the knees, or as part of the anarkali suit.

Anarkali Suit

Main article: Anarkali Salwar Suit

The anarkali suit is made up of a long, frock-style top and features a slim fitted bottom.The anarkali is an extremely desirable style that is adorned by women located in Northern India, Pakistan and The Middle East. The anarkali suit varies in many different lengths and embroideries including floor length anarkali styles. Many women will also opt for heavier embroidered anarkali suits on wedding functions and events. Indian women wear anarkali suits on various other occasions as well such as traditional festivals, casual lunch, anniversary celebrations etc. The kameez of the anarkali can be sleevelesss or with sleeves ranging from cap- to wrist-length.[38]

Lehenga Choli (skirt and blouse)[edit]

Main article: Ghagra choli

A Ghagra Choli or a Lehenga Choli is the traditional clothing of women in Rajasthan and Gujarat.[citation needed] Punjabis also wear them and they are used in some of their folk dances. It is a combination of lehenga, a tight choli and an odhani. A lehenga is a form of a long skirt which is pleated. It is usually embroidered or has a thick border at the bottom. A choli is a blouse shell garment, which is cut to fit to the body and has short sleeves and a low neck.

Different styles of ghagra cholis are worn by the women, ranging from a simple cotton lehenga choli as a daily wear, a traditional ghagra with mirrors embellished usually worn during navratri for the garba dance or a fully embroidered lehenga worn during marriage ceremonies by the bride.

Popular among unmarried women other than salwar kameez are Gagra choli and Langa voni.[39]

Pattu Pavadai/Reshme Langa

Main article: Pattu pavadai

Pattu Pavadai or Langa davani is a traditional dress in south India and Rajasthan, usually worn by teenage and small girls. The pavada is a cone-shaped skirt, usually of silk, that hangs down from the waist to the toes. It normally has a golden border at the bottom.

Girls in south India often wear pattu pavadai or Langa davani during traditional functions. Girls in Rajasthan wear this dress before marriage (and after marriage with sight modification in certain section of society. )

Langa - Voni/Dhavani

This is a type of South Indian dress mainly worn in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu, as well as in some parts of Kerala. This dress is a three-piece garment where the langa or lehanga is the cone shaped long flowing skirt.

Male clothing[edit]

Traditional clothing[edit]

For men, traditional clothes are the Achkan/Sherwani, Bandhgala, Lungi, Kurta, Angarkha, Jama and Dhoti or Pajama. Additionally, recently pants and shirts have been accepted as traditional Indian dress by the Government of India.[40]


Main article: Dhoti

A dhoti is from four to six feet long white or colour strip of cotton. This traditional attire is mainly worn by men in villages.[41] It is held in place by a style of wrapping and sometimes with the help of a belt, ornamental and embroidered or a flat and simple one, around the waist.[42]

In India men also wear long, white sarong like sheets of cloth known as Mundu. It's called dhotar in Marathi. In north and central Indian languages like Hindi, and Odia, these are called Mundu, while in Telugu they are called Pancha, in Tamil they are called veshti and in Kannada it is called Panche/Lungi. Over the dhoti, men wear shirts.

Panche or Lungi[edit]

A Lungi, also known as sarong, is a traditional garment of India. A Mundu is a lungi, except that it is always white.[42] It is either tucked in, over the waist, up to knee-length or is allowed to lie over and reach up to the ankle. It is usually tucked in when the person is working, in fields or workshops, and left open usually as a mark of respect, in worship places or when the person is around dignitaries.

Lungis, generally, are of two types: the open lungi and the stitched lungi. The open lungi is a plain sheet of cotton or silk, whereas the stitched one has both of its open ends stitched together to form a tube like structure.

Though mostly worn by men, elderly women also prefer lungi to other garments owing to its good aeration.[43] It is mostly popular in south India, though people of Bangladesh, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Somalia also can be seen in lungis, because of the heat and humidity, which create an unpleasant climate for trousers, though trousers have now become common outside the house.[44]


Main articles: Achkan and Sherwani

An Achkan or a Sherwani is a long coat / jacket that usually sports exposed buttons through the length of the jacket. The length is usually just below the knees and the jacket ends just below the knee. The jacket has a Nehru collar,[45] which is a collar that stands up.[citation needed] The Achkan is worn with tight fitting pants or trousers called churidars. Churidars are trousers that are loose around the hips and thighs, but are tight and gathered around the ankle.[40] Achkan is usually worn during the wedding ceremonies by the groom and is usually cream, light ivory, or gold coloured.[46] It may be embroidered with gold or silver. A scarf called a dupatta is sometimes added to the achkan.


Main article: Jodhpuri

A Jodhpuri or a Bandhgala is a formal evening suit from India. It originated in the Jodhpur State, and was popularized during the British Raj in India. Also known as Jodhpuri Suit,[47] it is a western style suit product, with a coat and a trouser, at times accompanied by a vest. It brings together the western cut with Indian hand-embroidery escorted by the Waist coat.[48] It is suitable for occasions such as weddings and formal gatherings.

The material can be silk or any other suiting material. Normally, the material is lined at the collar and at the buttons with embroidery. This can be plain, jacquard or jamewari material. Normally, the trousers match that of the coat. There is also a trend now to wear contrasting trousers to match the coat colour. Bandhgala quickly became a popular formal and semi-formal uniform across Rajasthan and eventually throughout India.[49]


The term angarkha is derived from the Sanskrit word Aṅgarakṣaka, which means protection of the body.[50] The angarkha was worn in various parts of the Indian Subcontinent, but while the basic cut remained the same, styles and lengths varied from region to region. Angarakha is a traditional upper garment worn in the Indian Subcontinent which overlap and are tied to the left or right shoulder. Historically, the Angrakha was a court outfit that a person could wrap around himself, offering flexible ease with the knots and ties appropriate for wearing in the various principalities of ancient India.[51]

Sari jama The jama is a long coat which was popular during the Mughal period. There are many types of jama costumes which were worn in various regions of South Asia, the use of which began to wane by the end of the 19th century A.D.[52] However, men in parts of Kutch still wear the jama also known as the angarkha[53] which has an asymmetric opening with the skirt flaring out to around the hips.[54] However, some styles fall to below the knees.


The Indian turban or the pagri is worn in many regions in the country, incorporating various styles and designs depending on the place. Other types of headgear such as the Taqiyah and Gandhi cap are worn by different communities within the country to signify a common ideology or interest.


Main article: Dastar

The Dastar, also known as a pagri, is a turban worn by the Sikh community of India. Is a symbol of faith representing values such as valour, honour and spirituality among others. It is worn to protect the Sikh's long, uncut hair, the Kesh which is one of the Five Ks of Sikhism.[55] Over the years, the dastar has evolved into different styles pertaining to the various sects of Sikhism such as the Nihang and the Namdhari.[56]


Main article: Pheta (turban)

Pheta is the Marathi name for turbans worn in the state of Maharashtra. Its usually worn during traditional ceremonies and occasions. It was a mandatory part of clothing in the past and have evolved into various styles in different regions.[57] The main types are the Puneri Pagadi, Kolhapuri and Mawali pheta.[58]

Mysore Peta[edit]

Main article: Mysore Peta

Originally worn by the kings of Mysore during formal meeting in durbar and in ceremonial processions during festivals, and meeting with foreign dignitaries, the Mysore peta has come to signify the cultural tradition of the Mysore and Kodagu district.[59] The Mysore University replaced the conventional mortarboard used in graduation ceremonies with the traditional peta.[60]

Rajasthani safa[edit]

Turbans in Rajasthan are called pagari or "safa". They are distinctive in style and colour, and indicate the caste, social class and region of the wearer. In the hot and dry regions, turbans are large and loose. The paggar is traditional in Mewar while the safa is to Marwar.[61] The colour of the pagaris have special importance and so does the pagari itself. In the past, saffron stood for valour and chivalry. A white turban stood for mourning. The exchange of a turban meant undying friendship.[62][63]

Gandhi cap[edit]

Main article: Gandhi cap

The Gandhi cap, a white coloured cap made of khadi was popularised by Mahatma Gandhi during the Indian independence movement. The practice of wearing a Gandhi cap was carried on even after independence and became a symbolic tradition for politicians and social activists. The cap has been worn throughout history in many states such as Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal and is still worn by many people without political significance. In 2013, the cap regained its political symbolism through the Aam Aadmi Party, which flaunted Gandhi caps with "I am a Common Man" written over it. This was partly influenced by the "I Am Anna" caps used during Anna Hazare's Lokpal movement. During the Delhi Legislative Assembly election, 2013, these caps led to a scuffle between Aam Aadmi Party and Congress workers, based on the reasoning that Gandhi caps were being used for political benefits.[64]

Contemporary clothing[edit]

Main article: Fashion in India

Main article: Indo-Western clothing

During the 1960s and 1970s, at the same time as Western fashion was absorbing elements of Indian dress, Indian fashion also began to actively absorb elements of Western dress.[65][66] Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Western designers enthusiastically incorporated traditional Indian crafts, textiles and techniques in their work at the same time as Indian designers allowed the West to influence their work.[65][66] By the turn of the 21st century, both Western and Indian clothing had intermingled creating a unique style of clothing for the typical urban Indian population. Women started wearing more comfortable clothing and exposure to international fashion led to a fusion of western and Indian styles of clothing.[65][66] Following the economic liberalisation, more jobs opened up, and created a demand for formal wear. While women have the choice to wear either Western or traditional dress to work,[67] most Indian multinational companies insist that male employees wear Western dress.

Women's clothing in India nowadays consist of both formal and casual wear such as gowns, pants, shirts and tops. Traditional Indian clothing such as the kurti have been combined with jeans to form part of casual attire.[66] Fashion designers in India have blended several elements of Indian traditional designs into conventional western wear to create a unique style of contemporary Indian fashion.[65][66]

See also[edit]




The Didarganj Yakshi depicting the dhoti wrap
Lady wearing saree, painting by Raja Ravi Varma
The Buddha, in Greco-Buddhist style, 1st–2nd century CE, Gandhara (modern Eastern Afghanistan).
Painting on wooden panel discovered by Aurel Stein in Dandan Oilik, depicting the legend of the princess who hid silk worm eggs in her headdress to smuggle them out of China to the Kingdom of Khotan.
An Assamese girl wearing mekhela sador, 2010
Four women wearing salwar kameez, Puducherry, 2006
A lady wearing a lehenga and choli.
Two girls wearing Pattu Pavadai.
Garba dancers, Ahmedabad. On the left, a male dancer in a Gujarati Angarakha
  1. ^These were vegetable dyes, commonly used in textiles. Non vegetable dyes were also used such as gairika (red ochre), sindura (red lead), kajal (lampblack), sulphate of iron, sulphate of antimony and carmine.[12]
  2. ^The Rig Veda, Mandala 10, hymn 75, mentions the valley of Sindhu as suvasa urnavati i.e home to plenty of sheep[citation needed]
  3. ^The Periplus states the various regions of production of cloth, including the Gangetic plain. Ancient Romans called Indian textiles by names such as gangetika, nebula and venti meaning woven wind. Marco Polo's Description of the world gives an idea of textile trade of the time, with a mention that Gujarat has the best textiles in the world.[17]

In 1820, in the Indian city of Benares, an English Baptist missionary named Smith helped to save a woman from the Hindu practice of sati, the burning of widows. He described the scene: ‘As soon as the flames touched her, she jumped off the pile. Immediately the Brahmins seized her, in order to put her again into the flames: she exclaimed, “Do not murder me! I don’t wish to be burnt!” The Company Officers being present, she was brought home safely.’ A London magazine reported the heroic efforts of Britain’s East India Company under the headline ‘A Woman Delivered’. If there was one thing 19th-century Europeans knew about India, it was probably sati.

Mr Smith’s 1820 account of valiant British men rescuing an Indian woman from her husband’s funeral pyre is one of many such contemporary reports. The East India Company had just become the effective governing authority of India. As a trading presence, it had been uninterested in culture. As a ruling presence, it set out to reform the barbaric local customs.

More recently, it is Afghan women who’ve needed the Anglo-American empire to deliver them. In 2002, a coalition of Western women’s organisations sent an open letter to the US President George W Bush asking him to ‘to take emergency action to save the lives and secure the future of Afghan women’. Its signatories included Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority Foundation in Virginia, together with other notable feminists such as Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon. US women overwhelmingly support the war, they noted, because it will ‘liberate Afghan women from abuse and oppression’.

In July 2004, three years into the invasion of Afghanistan, Bush announced victory: ‘Three years ago, the smallest displays of joy were outlawed. Women were beaten for wearing brightly coloured shoes. Today, we witness the rebirth of a vibrant Afghan culture.’ More recently, in March 2015, under the headline ‘The Thin Line of Defence Against Honour Killings’, The New York Times Magazine recounted the victory. ‘Faheema… was one of the lucky ones,’ wrote foreign correspondent Alissa Rubin, ‘she had made it to an emergency women’s shelter.’ The US-led war in Afghanistan had seen the construction of ‘about 20’ women’s shelters ‘almost entirely funded by Western donors’. ‘These shelters… are some of the most successful – and provocative – legacies of the Western presence in Afghanistan,’ reports Rubin, ‘demonstrating that women need protection from their families and can make their own choices.’

Ending sati or widow immolation in 19th-century India, and founding women’s shelters to protect women from honour killings in 21st-century Afghanistan: these campaigns bookend two centuries of Anglo-Americans standing squarely against horrific local customs. Specifically: protecting brown women from barbaric local customs. The 19th-century British Missionary Register and The New York Times Magazine of the 21st-century both tell urgent stories of Anglo-Americans as the fragile ‘thin line of defence’ protecting vulnerable local women.

In fact, more than a decade after President Bush celebrated their liberation and US feminists asked for the valiant campaign to continue, Afghan women are not free. Between 2012 and 2013, violence against women in Afghanistan increased by 25 per cent. US agencies entrusted with hundreds of millions of dollars for Afghan women are unable to say how they were used to empower them. Much has changed from the days of the East India Company to the more recent alliance between Bush and the Feminist Majority, but not everything: the Anglo-American representation of conquest as benevolence endures.

So why the particular focus on saving native women?

Do women, their freedom, their clothes and their marriages provide some crucial avenue into establishing hegemony, a method of representing the foreign invaders as good? The most compelling reason for this enquiry is that South Asian and Afghan feminisms are tainted by an imagined complicity with colonialism and imperialism. Making explicit just how aspects of women’s lives – their clothes and marriages – have been put into the service of Anglo-American imperial projects of domination, and how little these projects have had to do with those actual women, is a step towards lifting the weight of imperial complicity on Afghan feminism.

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In the late 1870s, Annette Ackroyd, an unmarried British woman who shared her Unitarian father’s strong commitment to education, set off for Calcutta to start a school for Hindu girls. Everyone knew, from the British press, that Indian women lived in an abject state. Once in India, however, British racism shocked Ackroyd. ‘Let us sit on the verandah and get out of the natives,’ one woman said to her. Of her fellow Brits, she concluded: ‘How these sweet and feminine souls, whose sympathies are so tender, can be so destitute not only of humanity but of simple courtesy and consideration of the feelings of others, is a problem I cannot pretend to solve.’

However, Ackroyd’s sensitivity also found offence in Bengali women’s clothing. Saris, she thought, left Bengali women semi-nude: she found them vulgar and immodest. ‘There must be a decided change in their lower garments,’ she wrote. ‘They cannot go into public in such costumes.’ A well-to-do Bengali woman struck Ackroyd as a ‘savage who had never heard of dignity or modesty’ for the way she sat, and dressed ‘in red silk, no shoes, no stockings’.

For the Anglo missionaries who spread across 19th-century India, Indian women’s clothing became a consistent preoccupation. In the Indian state of Kerala, missionaries and the colonial administration found the fact that the women did not cover their breasts proof of immorality. ‘There is absolutely no faithfulness between husband and wife,’ concluded one early 19th-century observer.

for those who aspired to appear ‘civilised’, more like English women, the sexy sari gave way to long-sleeved blouses

Working together, Protestant missionaries and British colonial administrators urged women of the Nadar caste to wear longer, more ‘modest’ clothes. Anglo officials in India were especially concerned that native women who had converted to Christianity conceal their breasts.

What women wore, and when they wore it, often served as identifying markers in India’s notoriously complex cultural hierarchy. Women’s clothing could also signify religious status, as was the case, in Nadar culture, with long scarves and the covering of breasts. In 1813, Colonel John Munro, the British Prime Minister in Travancore, rescinded the order for Nadar women to cover their breasts with scarves. Instead, Anglo missionary women would make jackets for the Indian women. But the jackets proved unpopular. Nadar women preferred to cover themselves with a certain kind of scarf. That scarf, however, was reserved for upper-caste women, and so Nadar women’s use of it provoked another conflict. The flailing colonial administration issued another order, now requiring Nadar women to wear the unpopular jacket and actually forbidding them from wearing the scarf that the British had initially encouraged.

By the time of Indian independence in 1947, the British had enjoyed some success in transforming the way Indian women dressed. Especially for those who aspired to appear ‘civilised’, more like English women, the too-sexy sari gave way to long-sleeved blouses and petticoats. Indian women in such clothes also represented a visible recognition of British colonial authority, which was at once symbolic, intimate and public.

The more recent US-led war in Afghanistan also involves a special interest in South Asian women’s attire. The congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, dramatised the matter when, on 16 October 2001, she stood on the floor of the US House of Representatives in a blue burqa. ‘It’s hard to breathe,’ Maloney reported, ‘it’s particularly hard to see, there’s a mesh in front of the eyes and its like having 15 screen doors in front of you. It’s very demeaning, it’s as if you have no identity.’ Maloney wore the burqa to make a point, namely that this was the ‘just war that we [Americans] have no choice but to wage’.

For more than a decade, the blue burqa has been an emblem of female oppression in Afghanistan. Women’s resistance to the blue burqa regularly earns the US media’s celebration, and anyone who resists it is automatically anointed a heroine. In May 2015, The New York Times Magazine profiled Malina Suliman, an Afghan graffiti artist, describing her in the headline as someone who ‘risks her life to challenge the burqa under the Taliban’, while the other details of her life were deemed merely incidental.

In the West, some governments have banned the burqa. In May 2015, two days after the article on Suliman was published, the Dutch Parliament banned the burqa in public places. The Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte released a statement saying that ‘the ban was made with security in mind’. A year earlier, in July 2014, the EU Court of Human Rights upheld the French ban on the burqa, rejecting the arguments of a Muslim woman who said it contravened her freedom of choice.

Western feminists have aimed to give the matter an existential depth and air of authenticity. Here’s Rubin again, this time describing what it’s like to wear a burqa in Afghanistan for The New York Times Magazine in May 2011: ‘I felt rejected with my burqa down, like I was not good enough to be seen in public. I leaned in the back seat and felt a wash of passivity come over me. Nothing was demanded of me except silence.’

women’s clothing is a powerful shorthand for all that is wrong with native culture and all that must be corrected by the empire

Women’s freedom, when it comes to the burqa, means wearing what ‘the empire’ wants. Other commentators such as Maureen Dowd, writing in The New York Times Magazine in November 2001, express skepticism about the promotion of women’s rights as a pretext for war, saying: ‘it’s a freebie, an easy way to please [American] feminists who got mad when the administration ended funding for international family planning groups that support abortion’. But Dowd also stops short of actually cautioning against the use of supposedly feminist imperatives as a means to couch the desires of domination that undergird empire. She draws attention to the continued subjugation of Saudi women, a regime that the US is unwilling to criticise for sins similar to those of the Taliban, and instead ends with a line that seems to argue for its expansion: ‘Millions of Muslim women are still considered property. The first lady might think about extending her campaign beyond Afghanistan.’ Dowd’s qualm, then, is not the sly misuse of women’s causes as pretexts for war, but a wider use of them informed unapologetically by what the West thinks is best for the rest.

Whether it is the covering of breasts in Southern India or the wearing of burqas in Afghanistan, women’s comportment and clothing have offered an emotionally powerful shorthand for all that is wrong with native culture and all that must be corrected by the empire. Just as the covering or uncovering of breasts carried significance beyond what it meant to British imperial officials, the burqa was actually a fixture of Afghan life long before the Taliban. Afghan women’s rights activists have criticised the West’s obsession with the burqa. In 2001, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan stated that the end of the mandatory burqa ‘was in no way an indication of women’s rights and liberties in Afghanistan’. However, the thoughts of Afghan women about their lives have been less important in the West than burqa as a symbolic moral justification of war and imperial control.

For a colonising mission to have moral weight, it must appear to ‘better’ the lives of the colonised. The agents of empire, whether they are the officers of the British East India Company or US soldiers in Afghanistan, must believe in the incontrovertible rightness of their cause. Representing sati as emblematic of Indian society was tantamount to depicting Hindu men as barbaric and evil. What other kind of men would burn a widow? Hence, colonisation becomes a kind of moral vision protecting vulnerable Hindu women against evil Hindu men.

The reality, of course, was more complex. Sati was barbaric, but as British colonial officials well knew, some parts of India did not practise it at all; in other regions it was restricted to certain castes, while in others still it retained relative popularity. It hardly deserved to be the one thing most Europeans knew about India. But colonial officials promoted the British misperception that all Hindus were raised to consider the act as the ‘most meritorious in the world and of the utmost benefit to the spirit of the enactor and the souls of all her kindred’. Even in 1843 – 14 years after the legislative ban on the practice – colonial officials were told to publicise the ban widely, stress the inhumanity of sati, and hand down stern punishments to those who failed to prevent self-immolation.

Sati also appears in Jules Verne’s adventure Around the World in 80 Days (1873), whose protagonist Phileas Fogg encounters the practice as it is about to occur deep in the Indian forest. As his travel companion says to him: ‘Yes… burned alive. And, if she were not, you cannot conceive what treatment she would be obliged to submit from her relatives. They would shave off her hair, feed her on a scanty allowance of rice, treat her with contempt; she would be looked upon as an unclean creature, and would die in some corner, like a scurvy dog.’  However, all ends well in Verne’s book, when Fogg, by virtue of a clever plan enacted by his faithful servant Jean Passepartout, manages to rescue Princess Aouda.

the colonial concept of religion imposed its own mode of silencing on the very women it sought to protect

In the British colonial imagination, sati was a mysterious process, driven forward by a ‘religion’ and ‘culture’ as unalterable as gravity. Hindus were imagined as hypnotised by Brahmanic texts and hence incapable of disobeying them. This conception of Hindus, dominated by a scriptural Hinduism, was a British construction. It was the British who, in order to establish themselves as the rightful successors of the defeated Mughal Empire, ordered the mass translation of Vedic and Hindu texts and ordered their codification as ‘law’ to govern their Hindu subjects. In actuality, the British translations were often poor ones that, in addition, omitted key elements of Hindu cosmology that the British considered irrelevant to jurisprudence.

Testimonials from Hindu women call into question the religious basis of sati, and even suggest that the concerns of widows were predominantly material and social, and not religious. An abandonment of the colonial binary between the sacred and the secular, according to the India-born, US-based scholar Lata Mani, would have pointed to the practice as having a primarily material basis that was then given religious form through the officiating of priests and the recitation of religious verses. However, the colonial conception of religion as ‘the structuring principle’ of the Hindu society left no room for a wider consideration of the material hardship and social dimensions of widowhood. Hence the colonial regime imposed its own mode of silencing on the very women it sought to protect.

One month after Maloney stood in Congress in a burqa in 2001, the First Lady Laura Bush described the brutalities of the Taliban on Afghan women, calling on ‘civilised people throughout the world’ to join the effort ‘because in Afghanistan, we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us’. Some White House employees and members of Congress wore swatches of fabric snipped from blue burqas to show their support. The US had found its civilising, missionary war cry.

Just as accounts of sati accompanied the British colonial project, in November 2001 a US Department of State report titled ‘The Taliban’s War Against Women’ accompanied Bush’s call to action. Just as the colonial ban on sati ultimately argued that the practice was not really required by Hindu scripture, so the US Department of State report took pains to establish that Islam itself did not require segregation or veiling or the banishment of women from public life. In 19th-century India or 21st-century Afghanistan, the operative, underlying Anglo presumption was that their colonial and imperial subjects were entirely programmed by their beliefs of scriptural authority.

Since the beginning of the 2001 call to war, tales of honour crimes – in which Afghan men kill wives, daughters and sisters who dare to disobey them – spun out of the Anglo media. In August 2010, nine years into the occupation, when critiques of the Afghan war were gaining traction, the cover of Time magazine featured a grotesquely mutilated Afghan girl, her nose cut off by a Taliban commander. Titled ‘What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan’, it told the story of 18-year-old Aisha, who had suffered this grotesque punishment for running away from abusive in-laws. Time’s story ended by noting that a US non-profit was insuring that Aisha would have reconstructive surgery. It looked as though the US and its people could fix everything, particularly the savagery of Afghan men.

The 19th-century British/Hindu sati-rescue narrative has thus reappeared in the 21st century as the American/Afghan honour-crime-saviour fantasy. It has been given due prominence in the US narrative on the war. One NPR account from 2012, titled ‘Facing Death, Afghan Girl Runs to US Military’, describes Lina, who said she’d run from her brothers because they were going to kill her after they’d found her with a cellphone. The story tells of the giddy delight of the rescued Afghan girl in the US military base, devouring ice cream and Doritos in the cafeteria, and quickly learning English from the movies (thanks to which ‘kiss was a favourite new word’). More drama arrives in the form of Afghan advisors who tell the US soldiers that Lina must be sent home to keep peace with the community. In the end, a compromise is reached when a women’s shelter in a different, larger Afghan city agrees to take her in.

the violence committed by men against women in Afghanistan has hundreds of thousands of counterparts in the US

As with sati narratives, honour-crime narratives rely on monolithic, prescriptive motivations disconnected from the social or material conditions of those involved. Much like the ‘problem Hindu’, the evil Afghan male stands in contrast to the persecuted Afghan female and is lazy, brutal, unfeeling. He is driven by a medieval moral code that endorses the persecution of women. This crude perspective takes the place of thinking about the more than 100,000 Afghan civilian casualties caused by the US invasion since 2001. Just as stories of rescuing Indian women from sati distracted from the violence of British colonialism, so focusing on the violence of honour-crime stories deflects attention from the raids, bombings, illegal and indefinite detentions, torture and general brutality of the US war in Afghanistan.

Any honest analysis of honour crimes in Afghanistan would have to begin by acknowledging a society whose familial and institutional structures have been broken by five decades of Soviet and US foreign intervention. That sort of honest analysis would also reveal that marital ‘choice’ is unavailable to nearly anyone, male or female, in Afghan society. It would explore marriage as a means of cementing frayed communal relations in a war-torn land rather than the romantic liaison available to affluent Westerners. Finally, it could also acknowledge that the intimate violence committed by men against women in Afghanistan has hundreds of thousands of counterparts committed by men against women in the US.

Instead, representing ‘honour killing’ as an exotic, gruesomely brutal, incomprehensible phenomenon driven by mysterious cultural imperatives makes the US occupation seem urgent and righteous, even heroic. Acknowledging that ‘honour killing’ in Afghanistan could be comparable to all the other crimes that men perpetuate against women everywhere else would cast into doubt one of the main moral edifices of the imperial endeavour. Like the 19th-century Indian Hindu sati, the 21st-century Afghan Muslim honour killings must be uniquely evil.

Both the British in India and the Americans in Afghanistan made women’s clothing and gender crimes into signatures of an alien and barbaric culture. Moral campaigns against such ‘offensive’ practices are in reality sophisticated imperial technologies of control. For populations ‘at home,’ bare-breasted Hindu women and burqa-clad Afghan women become convenient emblems of both strangeness and the need for corrective conquest. When the Hindu woman puts on a long-sleeved blouse and a petticoat, or when an Afghan woman throws off her burqa, it equals conquest and success of the colonial venture.

The singling out of gendered crimes, sati in India and honour killings in Afghanistan, dramatises the otherness of the Hindu or Afghan male. He becomes an indigenous evil requiring heroic foreign intervention. The sophistication of this kind of enemy-making is that it renders one half of the local population – the victims of these crimes – allies of the occupation. Actual Hindu widows and Afghan women are rarely, if ever, heard from, as their experiences and perspective might complicate a silence that the Anglo-American empire can imagine as gratitude.

To be effective, portraying imperial violence and occupation as a feminist intervention requires local cooperation from Indians or Afghans. Just as the British created a class of middlemen who furthered their reform projects and were eager to take on British clothing, education and even military service in the colonial army, the US has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into creating an NGO-based aid culture in Afghanistan. Monetarily dependent on the US, these NGOs accept and promote a perspective in which burqas and honour crimes are root problems of Afghan society.

The peculiar persistence of the Anglo empire’s preoccupation with women’s clothing and social roles reveals that domination cannot rely solely on battles and bombs. The popularisation of gross caricatures of native gender roles, in particular the passive, oppressed female, helps create popular support for the conquerers, and their enablers, as good and brave. In the process, a society’s moral basis is rebuilt to rationalise subjugation to the foreign power.

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Rafia Zakaria

is an attorney, political philosopher and writer whose work has been published in Al Jazeera America, Dissent and Guernica, among others. She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (2015).

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