Sunday, November 4, 2012

Cultural Appropriation in the Pardesi Community

No matter what you do in life, you are going to offend someone. 

Many pardesi women get caught up in the allure of India and Indian life. The willingly and lovingly take on the wearing of sari's or salwar kameez, bindi's, bangles and more. With all that sparkle and shine these things are just too intriguing for a woman to pass up. What woman doesn't want to feel beautiful right? Others adopt the trends as a way to fit in or in an effort to gain attention for themselves. Some adapt Indian culture into their lives as a way of welcoming their spouse. There's many reasons for a pardesi to adopt Indian clothing and customs.

I myself prefer salwar kameez. Some of my reasons are similar to other pardesi's as primarily I like the comfort and beauty of them. I have another reason for liking salwar kameez that most don't. I like them because it pisses off some people I don't like to see me in them. I like to stir the pot sometimes. On the other hand, I don't like them because they make me stand out from the crowd and I've always been the type to disappear into the landscape. I had gotten quite good at it until bit by the India bug. Lol. So as you can see, I have a love/hate relationship with my salwar kameez. As for other things, bangles are about all that work for me. Okay fine, I like my gold too. But when it comes to bindis and sindoor I don't wear them because they don't suit me.

That didn't stop me from seeking out American kurtas as I've been shopping here. No, they're not the same thing by far but I want longer shirts. See, as a child of the 80's I prefer leggings and a long shirt. I can't even recall owning jeans during that era until someone made a snide comment about my spandex body suit during my teen years. Then I moved on to professional clothing. I never really liked jeans. I'm straying off topic, let me get back onto it lol.

Among the desi and pardesi community this idea of pardesi women taking on the cultural aspects typically associated with Indian women seems somewhat controversial. I've heard the term "Behenji" (spelling may be wrong) applied to those who wear salwar kameez. This was applied in a negative way to denote "village-looking." It simply was not a compliment. On the other hand I've heard aunties praise the typical salwar wearing by pardesi women.

When it comes to sindoor, bindi's and other outward shows of marriage in the Indian community, pardesi women in America have lost their jobs, been sent home from work, ridiculed and hurt. Sometimes nothing is said other than a simple and non-chalant "oh" as if they're not interested and other times you will be required to tell your story. In India, where these things are standard among young married women, the reactions are mixed. Some will not expect you to wear them because it's not your culture. Some will get overly-excited that you're following the customs. A few will openly chastise you for dabbling in a culture that doesn't belong to you.

Each pardesi has their own reasoning for why they wear Indian attire or outward shows of marriage. Some do it because they have converted to the Indic religion and thus they become outward shows of religion. Some actually believe in these religious practices as being important. Some women take on these cultural norms to honor their husbands while others participate and don't even understand why. Some just like the look of it.

In the US we are taught and raised that we can do anything, we can be anything, etc. So most of the time when an American takes on these customs it is without thought of how anyone could be offended. We're simply not that easily offended here and don't think that others will be. Jewelry transcends culture and no one seems to be bothered if you take on wearing their countries jewelry but they do get offended over clothes.

For the record - Americans are not nearly as attached to culture in regards to clothing as most other cultures are. As a melting pot, we simply do not typically segregate our clothing the way some other cultures do and exotic prints are worn by just about everyone without any thought as to where they came from beyond their branded label. This is our culture, it is neither wrong nor right in itself. How you use it is what makes it okay or not okay. It's the defining factor between appreciation and appropriation of a culture.

Has anyone in the west complained about ethnic cultures taking on the wearing of western clothing? Not to my knowledge. But, it would seem that some ethnic cultures take great offense to westerners wearing their clothing. I'm not just referring to India on that issue but for the purpose of this post, I'm using India as my example.

And actually now that I think about it, most "western" cultures are grouped together in this clothing fiasco. They're not futher defined to American, French, German, etc. I think that's a whole different topic, maybe I'll call it "The westernizing of the world."

Check out this uproar over white women wearing sari's. It's highly uneducated opinion peace that they've yet to publish a single comment on. Obviously, no one had anything nice to say. I know, I posted a comment a while back and was tactful, used no foul language, etc. and so did several other pardesi's but none of them are posted on the site.

For something more friendly and intelligent sounding, check out this article on The NRI - Cultural Appreciation or Appropriation. The author mentions her own account of wearing Indian garments and thoughts on the subject.

A site I frequent that is operated by pardesi women who like to wear sari's is Sari Safari. They have a lot of good information and do not disrespect the culture in anyway. Their intent in wearing the sari was for their own feelings of femininity and beauty. They'll even show you how to ride a bicycle in a sari! They embraced the same view of the sari that Indian women embraced but are still open to ridicule for it based on skin color.

Among our community, Cyn over at Cyns' Adventures in India can help you understand dressing as a pardesi in larger cities in India if you're concerned about fitting in with the Indian community. Some other experiences of pardesi's in our community wearing Indian clothing or symbols are:
I think you'll also like this view of whether or not it's okay to wear salwar kameez. Free Thought A Million Gods - Baggy Silk Pants

So how do you decide if it's okay to wear Indian clothing and symbols? As simple as the answer may seem, you have to choose it based on your own personal beliefs and convictions. There will always be someone who won't like it. There will be others who may make fun of you. But like anything else in life, don't let their judgment deter you from being who you are. Be you, be comfortable and be content with your choices.

For my Indian readers - how do you feel when you see pardesi women wearing a sari or salwar kameez, sindoor or bindis? I would love to hear your thoughts.

For my pardesi readers- please share your stories of times you wore Indian clothing or icons while in the US or India or both. 


  1. Well I work at an Indian MNC and I wear either kurta with leggings or full salwar kameez suit 4 days a week. Fridays I typically wear jeans and short kurti. I have found that since the majority of women I work with (especially the more senior women) always wear traditional dress its just easier for me to wear as well so I don't stand out too much or attract unwanted male attention in the office.

  2. Well I work at an Indian MNC and I wear either kurta with leggings or full salwar kameez suit 4 days a week. Fridays I typically wear jeans and short kurti. I have found that since the majority of women I work with (especially the more senior women) always wear traditional dress its just easier for me to wear as well so I don't stand out too much or attract unwanted male attention in the office.

  3. I don't know what the deal is with people. Clothes are just clothes. I'm Indian and I don't see any problem with any white girl (or black or brown or purple or whatever) wearing any Indian clothes/accessories/items. Bloody whingers - they would get all jacked up when some white person discriminates but don't they realise it's discrimination when they tell others what to wear and what not to wear? People of colour just love to label things as "racist".

  4. I wear almost exclusively Indian clothing.

    I wear it because I like it, it suits my figure, it is comfortable, it suits the weather, it suits my activities, it is classic, timeless & always in fashion.

    I sew & do needlework & have a great appreciation for the many different embroidery & embellishment techniques of all the regions of India.

    I have a HUGE collection of hand embroidered & embellished kurtas, shawls, dupattas, salwar kameez, saris, Kashmiri pheran, - you name it, I got it. From Chikan embroidery of Lucknow, to Punjaban Phulkari, to Kashmiri Kalakdosi- you name I got it.

    In fact I'm going to a wedding in a couple of weeks in true Mughal style-

    I shall be wearing a man's sherwani made of hot pink hand loomed raw silk which is hand adorned with Zardosi gold embroidery, genuine ruby spinels, pink crystals & real seed pearls, white churidars, a Nepali white handloomed pashmina & silk scarf, and a pair of golden hand beaded curly toed Mojari slippers.

    Yes, I even wear men's Indian clothes (does that make me a cross dresser?).

    Yes, I am American so occasionally I will wear a kurta with 'jeggings' & Jimmy Choos.

    Do people stare at me in the US when I wear Indian clothing? Yes, at times they do. Often it has been a great 'icebreaker' & often people ask where did I get such gorgeous clothes.

    Often I am aghast when I go to the US & see all the bum & boob cleavage on display- but that's another story.
    I abhor bum cleavage!!!
    A moratorium on those horrid low waisted jeans America!!!

  5. I am Indian and I don't care what anyone wears. In fact I have serious issues with the sections in India that want to dictate who should wear what (mostly focussed on women). It's a personal thing and no one has the right to interfere.

    About wearing sindoor/ bindi. I don't wear them myself as I don't feel comfortable with having to wear that many signs of marriage. There are parts of my culture that I would rather leave behind. About someone else wearing them (white or not), I wouldn't care one way or another. It's their choice. :-)

  6. To be fair, the super low waist is over ;) Your sherwani sounds absolutely incredible! Would love to see pictures!

    I will write a longer comment on the topic later as I am about to take a flight.

  7. LOVE this comment! You're so right. They need to just shut up and let people live their own lives. The world has much bigger issues than what someone is wearing.

  8. Who doesn't abhor bum cleavage lol! Ewww! I've worn men's clothes myself so yes, we're both cross-dressers but I don't care. Sometimes their clothing suits the need more than women's. As I'm sure you well know that gender bias is rampant in the US with pink=girls, etc. So unfortunately that means occasionally a woman might actually need mens clothing because there's no female equivalent. In addition to that, I took some of hubby's clothes with me so I could feel close to him and I'm not ashamed to wear them lol.

  9. Thank you for your comment. It's refreshing to hear such a modern perspective.

  10. I am American and my husband is Pakistani. I think many of us adapt to our mate's culture because its different, not our own, and a symbol of respect. "When in Rome, do what the Roman's do" is so true! When I am in Pakistan, I wear shalwar kameez or long baggy pants and a kurta out of respect for him and the culture. Most Pakistani's LOVE it when I wear "their" clothes. And its so much more comfortable than jeans and a t-shirt! In the USA I wear casual business dress to work and also kurta's and pants/jeans, etc. I love wearing jewelry from there as well. I can't comment too much on an outward sign of marriage because in Muslim culture its not needed. But I will say my husband DOES wear a traditional wedding band in Pakistan because its important to me (my culture). I also wear wedding rings but mine were made by a jeweler in Pakistan and they are totally ethnic looking, which I love. So... I say wear what you want and when it comes to outward signs someone is married such as sindoor, then that's a decision between a man and a wife. And its no one else's business if you wear it or not! If someone wants to have a problem with the way someone dresses, then they should gossip about Lady Gaga and her outlandish outfits and not us! Just sayin'!

  11. Lol, thank you! And yes, Lady Gaga does enough to keep us all busy gossiping!

  12. Definitely! There are bigger issues. I don't look "down" upon Indians living in the US who choose to wear jeans or even a "scandalous" tank top!

    There's a difference between dressing up to make fun of someone and wearing something you're comfortable in.

  13. Thanks for the comment Amanda! Your example was good as well. I hadn't thought about that but yes, westerners do wear a lot of tank tops and that's not something you would see in most parts of India.

  14. Thanks for linking back to me :)
    I think people should be free to wear what they want BUT I admit I have a problem with Gori that are all new to Indian culture and feel the need to do "everything right" and take a patronizing tone when they are told these things are no longer done in India or say "it's so sad that Indian women don't like wearing saree all the time, or wear bindi, sindoow, payals...they are letting their culture die" These ladies talking that way have little real understanding of the implication of these dying cultural traits and realy try to hard being more Indians than the Indians.
    I'm a western girl living in India I don't feel the need to uphold a ancient standard of a culture that isn't mine. Sure it's appropriate do do as the Roman do to avoid offending, but the problem is a lot of these women have no idea what the Romans actually do and stick to some of their stereotype of the culture.
    I feel euqally offended when a non-swiss lecture me on my own culture and find it appaling that I don't do this and that. Heck if I had a no native tellign me it is so sad I don't dress in folk dance outfits or made a point of learning about the local flok music and tradition to keep them alive while they parade around in traditional old school wear and rub it in my face how they are more in the know than I am...yes I would be pissed.

    These "rookie gori" don't realise that their questionning why Indian women no longer wear saree everyday or do all the marriage rituals and marriage symbols wearing and calling it sad is as irking as if someone pointed out to them that it is very sad that they no longer dress in pilgrim dresses, go to Chruch every Sunday without a fail, cook everything from scratch, sit down and say Grace at every meal, patch up old socks by the fireplace instead of watching TV and only read the Bible...

  15. When will these ridiculous horrid low waist jeans ever disappear? I hate them, and it's though finding anything but these in the ladies section of a store, I buy my jeans in the men section for that reason!
    Beside how can it be called low waist when it actually barely covers the hips when you are ina standing positions!

  16. I read that linked article and then sat here with a incredulous look on my face. Thoughts swirled and whirled and I debated within myself about the author's point and where the heck they got it from. It was just so...ridiculous.

    And then I realized that the piece was heavily "quoted" with absolutely no research or statistics whatsoever.

    In short it was a horribly expressed opinion piece looking for attention from peers and not receiving any.

    It was a "I have a deadline and nothing to write about" piece.

    It appropriate another part of the Indian culture....a BAKWAS piece. ;)

    Using the excuse of economic dominance by explaining why so many Indians have no other recourse BUT to wear western clothes was the pinnacle of pathetic. Please. They wear western clothes for the very same reason nay sayers accuse all of us in the west for wearing asian clothes. Because it's different, cool, fun, beautiful, interesting and many other reasons why.

    And who cares what the reason is? Why are their sentiments getting hurt over someone expressing an interest in their culture? Because they don't think these people are getting it right? Or just because it pisses them off to see a white/west person "appropriating" their stuff?

    For me personally...I think it's that last reason. I think it's prejudice. I think they've got the past all wrapped up in their head and think "See? Just one more thing they think they can steal from us!"

    Anyway...I could say more but I'll leave it for now. Other than to say, I think when we blend and mix and share, we are not loosing who/what we are but rather becoming what we should have been.

    Great blog!

  17. You make a great point. I think I would be a little irritated if someone wanted me to wear the old hoop skirts or petticoats that used to be worn in the old days and wear them right. Some fashion trends die out for a reason. The garments simply don't serve their original purpose anymore.

  18. You must be taller than me. Lol. When I buy low waisted jeans, they come up to my belly button. I'm super short.

  19. Thanks! I agree about the prejudices. Those who complain could very well be blaming the past. While I do think a lot of things in the past were wrong, I'm not living in the past. This is today and the world has changed a lot since the British Raj. Not to mention, the rest of the "west" shouldn't be associated with the British Raj to Indians. India won their independence, it's time to keep moving forward and not hold that past against the entire world.

  20. LOL I am 5'7 so not super tall, but we have long legs in the family so that could be why low waist is pretty much exposing the hip bone in my case, not that it matter because thos who came up with low wais also decided that girls should have no hips, so I'm lucky if iI finf ladies wear that will accomodate my 42 inches of hips.

  21. I'm late to this game but wanted to type out my whole comment here, since I hadn't been able to at all while on my trip.

    I don't have a lot to say here from the appropriation angle; I need to sit and actually blog about it in depth. I think there is a world of difference between a hipster girl in booty shorts and a bindi on tumblr posting pictures that say "omg, it's so sparkly, look at me be edgy" and someone who is *knowledgeable* about Indian dress and culture (not just superficially "appreciative" of it) donning a kurti with jeans.

    As for myself, I try to follow three rules when choosing clothing in general, no matter if it's desi or western or anything else.

    1 - Is it appropriate? I don't wear a business suit to the beach, or a salwar kameez to my conservative office where Indian women also dress in American business professional wear.

    I remember vividly a rock concert in Delhi where all the girls were dressed just like me - jeans, corduroys, or black pants and a t-shirt or hoodie. Except for a couple of white tourist girls in baggy, pastel, flowery salwar kameez and big sparkly bindis. They were out of place in the 'chic' crowd. I can't know their story but I do know that they looked uncomfortable being the center of attention and that it was fairly obvious that they had based their clothing choice off of a stereotype instead of what Indians would actually wear in such a situation.

    2 - Is it respectful of others? This is a personal choice I make. Some people think they should wear what they want and if others are offended, that falls in the category of Not Their Problem. I am not one of those people. I don't want my choice of clothing -- and I always have a choice -- to make others around me uncomfortable or take attention away from where it should be and placed on me instead. I do not wear Hindu iconography on my shirts. I do not wear rosaries as a necklace. I don't even wear cross jewelry because it would give the wrong impression of my faith (or lack thereof). If I go to an Indian classical music concert, I wear an understated but stylish churidar suit or dressy kurta with trousers; I know how people stare at 'the firangi in desi clothes' and I have no wish to upstage the performers! With friends who observe more modest dress, I will also wear longer skirts or pants and modest tops. I want people to relate to me as a person and not be distracted by what I am or am not wearing. And for every situation, that changes a little. It isn't possible to make everyone happy all the time and I don't aim for that, but I do try to not to shock people or wear things I know could have the ability to make a statement I don't necessarily want to make.

    3 - is it "me" ? I have to be comfortable in my clothes! If I put on a salwar suit and the first thing in my head is, "Will people be staring?" I take it right back off and wear something else. If I feel self-conscious in it, I have no business wearing it. This goes for leggings and a sweater dress as much as it does a sari. I trust my gut when making clothing choices. If I feel weird, I'll look weird. If you are going to wear a sari, rock that thing. Drape it properly (and there are tons of proper drapes and even more hideous and improper ones), move well in it, feel at ease in it. Buy one in a color and material that flatters you. Pair it with jewelry for the occasion. Dress classy. Dancing cheesy is optional. :)

    Basically in the US I would say I wear 90% Western and 10% Indian dress; in India it's more 50/50. I do wear unobtrusive sindoor which is no one's business but mine and A's, and I wear a wedding ring and a loha, which looks like an ordinary bracelet. Nothing that is really out of the ordinary here unless people are actually looking for it.

  22. Is that really an issue for people? Or only a single opinion of someone who likes to be offended?

    Should I now start to be angry at all those Japanese tourists on the Oktoberfest wearing "Lederhosen" and "Dirndl"? Should I? Ok then, I am outraged and furious!!! Like really! I will also let my fiancée know that from today onwards T-Shirts and Jeans are off the record. After all he is Indian and should dress like one! And it´s pains me seeing him and million others in "western clothes" - MY clothes!

    I think the whole discussion is petty. I remember being hesitant wearing Guatemalan and West African clothes in the respective countries. Less because I was scared to offend someone (I never met ANYONE who would have been offended by me wearing "their" [what does that even mean?] clothes) and more because the majority of white women just look ridiculous in African dresses. It took me a while to understand that it´s a question of color combination (skin vs. dress). It also took me a while to simply be comfortable with myself to wear whatever I like. And that includes jeans, kurtas, dresses and tank tops (yes, also in India).

  23. I kinda feel compelled to defend the "white tourist girls". I actually think that the majority of them doesn´t dress according to a stereotype about Indians but they dress accoding to the rules in their own cultural group. Just like emos or hipsters dress a certain way new-age/neo hippies have their own dress codex too. And most likely, being tourists, they didn´t even have a choice to make about their clothing that day.

    I got a friend who wears just what you described: always. Because that´s what her friends wear and it´s a statement concerning their life style, their values and convictions. It´s a stereotype in itself but it has nothing to do with "trying to dress Indian".

  24. This is a great idea. Be true to yourself. Even if you follow all those rules though, you could offend someone and truthfully you can't spend your life worrying about them. You have to do what is right for you but do it the right way as well. (And just for the record I would never wear overly large flowers in any culture. I have horrific visions of the 70's when I see those. And I know you weren't referring to me specifically.)

    I don't wear anything that would make me uncomfortable but I've noticed, regardless of what I'm wearing, people can still make you uncomfortable. I felt very uncomfortable wearing western clothes to the mall in India quite a few times. They were clothes I purchased at that mall but people still made me uncomfortable. It was weird.

  25. I see you grasped my point well. Westerners don't get offended when our culture or fashion trends are adopted by other nations. I think a lot of people fail to realize why jeans/denim were even invented. What was the purpose of a polo shirt and business suits, etc. This discussion is petty but it keeps coming up time and time again.

    As for white women looking ridiculous in African dress, I think that you also see the point in this as well. They don't always learn the proper fashion trends or dress codes and just adopt whatever they want without figuring those out and they do often look bad. They could look good if they took the time to know what they were wearing and select patterns and colors that worked with their skin tone.

    I too have become quite comfortable with myself. I wear whatever I feel like wearing (as appropriate of course - no evening gowns at Wal-Mart right?....actually I've seen that so maybe that's a bad example). Great comment!

  26. Interesting point. You are probably right about the codes of their families. I changed my families code. They never wore black before me and it's a color I wear almost every day. So they started wearing more of it with me. They let me get sleeveless kameez/kurta's but would never pick those for themselves. I think religions play a part in this as well. Muslims typically wear longer kameez than Hindu's for example and Sikh's tend to cover their heads more than Hindu's but less than Muslims. So I think individual family dynamics definitely play a major role in how these women dress.

  27. I also think clothes are clothes and it's nice to be able to wear anything we want. I don't like Indian clothes personally but we live in Scotland and my husband wore a kilt for my office Ball. He looked yummy and the locals Scots praised him

  28. That's so cute! It's great when two people can share each others culture and learn their own likes and dislikes.

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  40. I'm not Indian, but I think Saris are absolutely beautiful! I envy the way my MIL (she's Indian) can wear one. Well she wears a dupatta much better then I, but that's another story. I've seen the maid clean the entire floor in a Sari while squatting down. While I'd love to be able to move so easily in a Sari, I find it a bit difficult. It doesn't stop me from wearing one. If it helps any, many indians in HP thought it wonderful I had mehndi on my hands and arms. I guess for those that don't like it... don't look ;) Same goes with my capris and tank tops. Yes I'd rather be in shorts, no I don't like the stares. As far as my friends whom saw the pictures all they could say was "wow, that's so beautiful!" And of course it is. Would India be India without all the beautiful colored Saris?

    I once mentioned when picking up a prescription at a govt hospital that the women were dressed so beautifuly it looked like they were going to a party and not the hospital. This is one of the many things I love about India.

  41. Sari's are beautiful. I think as long as you're respectful and you take the time to know how to wear one, it's perfectly fine to wear a sari. I have yet to wear one outside of my home. I've learned how to wear them and a few tricks on how to get them to stay on like they're supposed to but I haven't had any occasion to wear one out of the house.