Recently, Priyanka Gandhi, the high profile woman politician, changed her twitter DP. Everyone changes their DP but this one sparked a row of comments, some positive and some negatives. The erstwhile DP of Priyanka Gandhi showed her in a maroon saree with long sleeve blouse but in her new DP, she was rocking blue jeans with a matching t-shirt. Many questioned, how an Indian woman of that stature can put a DP in jeans! Nonetheless, along with the sexist comments, there were some good ones too.

Saree in a handloom workshop.

This absurd conflation of ‘Indian feminine’ and saree is not new. Over the years we have seen and heard many instances where women were shamed, abused, and harassed for not wearing a saree but ‘western outfits’.  “Mother India wore saree and the daughters should wear them too” is perhaps the logic. Many young urban feminists roared in disagreement and pointed towards the underpinnings of a democratic society, the right to live as per one’s beliefs and perspective. Cityscape has changed over time and it’s a good thing that women now have a wide variety of outfits to choose from.

A saree weaver with her handloom in rural West Bengal.

India was always a collection of many things. Likewise, the clothes that women wore also varied. Even the saree which is considered universal in the Indian cultural milieu was/is worn differently across the country. Some fashion historians even claim that originally saree was worn without a blouse. Women draped one end of the saree in the upper part of the body, which in fact can still be seen in the rural areas. Elderly and generally widowed women still wear saree without a blouse. The blouse is said to have come as a parcel with the Victorian etiquette of covering everything.

Saree in a handloom workshop.

Hence, the analogy of Indian morality and saree (which was originally worn blouse-less) and loathing of the ‘western outfit’ for unnecessarily ‘exhibiting’ parts of women’s body is nothing but the extension of patriarchal control over women’s lives.

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Another weaver with her handloom

When this debate once again hit the social media this time initiated by Priyanka’s DP, I was travelling in rural West Bengal. There were villages with cacophonic sounds of “khat khat khat khat” coming from many handlooms. In these villages women and men alike, earned their living from weaving sarees. And almost all the women wore sarees, even while cooking and doing the household chores! Saree had a different connotation altogether in these villages. It meant livelihood.

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Manual threading in a Chakra

I don’t think that if a mid-aged woman living is a semi-urban or rural area comes out wearing jeans and t-shirt she will be accepted. She still cannot exercise her free-will. In a different note, there are some women who ferociously detest wearing ‘western clothes’! Hence, there are always intangible factors in play within the ‘controller’ and ‘controlled’ matrix.

The embroidery station where saree gets it intricate designs

Nevertheless, I came across many women who earned their livelihood by weaving sarees and who wore sarees all day long. Whose hand brought along the threads together and weaved it to make the long fabric called saree.  When I juxtaposed the outrage against women wearing western clothes and the women that were in front of me sitting beside their handlooms, a question arose inside me, “Whose saree is this?”

The article was first published on Milaap.org and was written by Gunjan Rana. Milaap is India’s largest crowdfunding platform for personal and social causes. 

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