Burqa and Shalwar, Jeans and Sari

Changing fashions on the streets of Dhaka

'Clothes make the man', they say – or the woman, or the city. On the streets of Dhaka these days, one cannot help but be struck by the variety of female attire – the traditional Bangalee nari with her red-and-white sari and dot on the forehead, the fully-veiled 'Muslim' woman, and the 'modern' woman in jeans and short kurta.

Are more of Dhaka's women veiling themselves today than in the past, as casual observation would indicate? This photo essay has its origins in research done by the Department of Women's Studies at Dhaka University, to seek an answer to that question. In the course of the study, we discovered that, while use of the veil is indeed on the rise, the style of the burqa is also being adjusting to new trends and fashions.

Together with a burgeoning of burqa styles, we charted an explosion in other attire – from the shalwar kameez, jeans and short kurtas, to the traditional sari, which tends to be worn even by young girls on special occasions. From the burqa to the sari, this suddenly expanded spectrum of women's wear is an intricate part of the Bangladeshi woman's changing views of herself and the world.

The transformation has been nothing less than dramatic. Bangladesh started its journey to independence in the 1950s and 1960s with a consciously-held image of the Bangalee woman – long tresses, clad in sari, and the 'modern' among them more often than not carrying a political placard or banner. Three decades after independence, a huge variety has replaced those few images.

Rather than revert to the defined images of the past, contemporary women are experimenting and exploring. If clothing can be taken as a badge of identity, then Dhaka women are playing around with identity – sometimes highlighting their regional roots or declaring their Islamic identity, at other times simply choosing to be modern and contemporary.

Choice, you may say, is a matter of luxury, for how many can really choose their clothes? We looked at working class women in Dhaka, particularly the by-now familiar sight of young garment workers walking to and from their factories. Variety and choice seemed to be at work there as well.

Intriguingly, choices need not always be free; sometimes they are dictated by the constraints placed on women's movements. Many individuals we interviewed said that they choose to veil themselves as a protective measure, as the burqa provides them security from the sexual harassment prevalent on the city's crowded streets and public transport. Even though working women today dominate Dhaka's streets, the special measures that they have to take in order to occupy many public spaces says much about the continuing challenges women face in modern-day Bangladesh.

When all is said and done, these pictures not only illustrate how women negotiate the streets of Dhaka, but offer a glimpse into how Bangladeshi womanhood is evolving. That picture is anything but static.

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Himal Southasian