National dressing requires discipline

Between the Bollywood themed birthday party last weekend and the young American men wearing thobes in Qatar,  I have learned a healthy amount of respect for cultures where people wear a national dress (notice I did not use the word costume). Costumes you play in. National dress marks you as a member of a certain society, with all the rights and obligations therein.

Both the slippery saris at our house and the wrinkled thobes in the classroom are examples of how complicated it is to wear something that one is not used to – and yet you don’t notice this until you try it on. The discipline comes from starting at an early age: most saris, thobes, and abayas are worn from teenage years onward. That’s when you learn how to keep your shyla (head scarf) from slipping off the crown of your head. That’s when you begin wraping the edge of your sari pallu (the part over your shoulder) around your waist to anchor it. 

There are moments when we must shock those whose national dress we are wearing: for example when I looked across the room and saw a that a friend’s sari had slipped, revealing the entire right side of her blouse, something akin to exposing yourself in your bra in public.

Or when a non-Qatari male wears a thobe right out of the Carrefour package, folds and all, in contrast to all the perfectly starched and ironed men coming into a resturant.

But mostly there is just enjoyment and appreciation that someone is trying to understand your culture and now appreciates a small portion of what makes you unique. After all, now you know we make it look easy, because at one point it was hard for us too.

Ever worn something that wasn’t the usual for you? Did you get positive or negative reactions? Would you do it again?

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Reader Comments

  1. qatar

    One day two years ago, a group of CMU-Q staff all wore thobes and abayas to work. I was exceedingly nervous — I didn’t want the students to think we were just playing dress-up, which to some extent we were — but it ended up being great. The students told me how great I look in abaya (which was kind — black’s not my color!) and one of our more conservative students even came over and hugged me.

    An odd occurrence: we all went out to Landmark, and while there I ran into an Indian coworker. We exchanged pleasantries but then he said “I have to move on before people wonder why I’m talking to a woman in an abaya.” Apparently he was worried that passers-by might intervene if they thought an Indian man was accosting a presumably-Qatari woman.

    An even odder occurrence: after that day I used this userpic as my Facebook profile picture, but I had to take it down after two days due to the ridiculous numbers of email messages I started receiving from local Muslim men who were intrigued by such a “devout Muslimah” as myself. And before you ask, yes, my Facebook profile listed me as married and my religion as definitively not-Muslim.

    Last year a friend at work instituted Traditional Thursdays and tried to get a group of us to wear various traditional attire on Thursdays. She really enjoyed wearing a variety of clothes — saris, salwar kameez, abayas — and wanted us to join in the fun. I wore one of her saris one day (I adore saris, there is nothing more elegant), and on another occasion I wore a beautiful blue-and-gold patterned Syrian dress that I bought in the souqs. Both times I received positive comments, but I felt comical imitating someone else’s national dress so I stopped. I still have mixed feelings — why shouldn’t I wear clothes I think are beautiful, even if they’re not worn the way my ancestors traditionally wore things? — but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to explain myself to everyone I saw.

    • Mohanalakshmi

      Yes, wear it!

      I think wearing it respectfully is the key. I was somewhat shocked at my guest’s attitude when I corrected her sari wearing. She sort of brushed off that no Indian woman would ever allow that to happen in public.

      In Doha, race is so clearly defined that perhaps you feel more awkward than you would other places.

      The story about your Facebook photo is a wonderful piece of cultural conversation and proof that less is more. If only the young women in North America could embrace that a woman with secrets is more alluring!

      I didn’t have a chance to respond to your earlier post on “why is this an indian problem.” Perhaps because I wasn’t able to reign over my daylight hours as I would have liked. 🙂

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