Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Politics of Sari

My compliments to the article by Sabitri Gautam in today's The Kathmandu Post.

Consumption is a political behavior. We consume things to impart a certain message about ourselves and to communicate our values to others. The things we eat, things we wear and things we keep around us express who we are or want to be and what values we adhere to. You can tell a lot about a person by what she/he eats or does not eat; what she/he wears and does not wear. It is, therefore, very misleading to argue that our dresses, food, materials in hour house, do not really matter. Things have social life because we constantly give meanings to things.

The case in question, the sari of parliamentary candidates in Kaski, became a heated topic not because the candidates chose to wear saris during their election campaigns, but because the ways in which their supporters in social media interpreted this choice and utilized their opportunity to attack those who were questioning excessive importance given to saris failed to understand the essence of the debate around saris.

A society, everywhere, is characterized by unequal distribution of powers and resources. Most often they are interconnected. Those who have more power and resources exercise control over those who have less. Control over rules defining food, dresses and so on helps the rich and powerful to control or protect their wealth or powers.

The ways in which these controls are exercised differ across the world and can be different within the same social context. However, one of the interesting similarities which can be clearly observed is that the rich and powerful define customs, languages, dresses, and activities for those who are less powerful.

The dresses of men comprising of ideas regarding what to wear, how much of body parts to cover, how to interpret the lack of compliance to existing norms, etc. are not strongly regulated. You can always find men walking around without their shirts, wearing clothes carelessly which reveal their private parts, scratching their testicles, tucking their crotch with ease -in public. This is not a big problem!

Women have to follow certain standard for being present in public which are not compromised. Failure to do so comes with costs. Women's failure or lack of interest in confirming to existing values about how they look becomes the basis of the judgement about her moral and social standing. Women have to suffer for disparaging comments/criticisms from others and more intensely from their own relatives or family members.

Sari is not an exception. The man in Nepal's social context wants to see women in saris. Saris reveal women's confirmation to the male expectation of what makes them beautiful. This confirmation can very often be a matter of choice, or completely voluntary. However, It is important to understand that value around sari as a women's dress is an example which embodies complex and unequal relationships between men and women.

The candidates wearing a sari is not a big problem, as I said before. The problem lies in what we observed in social media after some people asked 'Why not more comfortable clothes, and why only saris?'

Sari is a very contested topic. One has to understand -what makes it so contested? The contest lies in men's struggle to keep women under their control. Men obviously do not want to compromise on the values they have set for women. A sari wearing, shy, jewelry clad, dutiful, unsuspecting, loyal, obedient woman is the dream of Nepali men. Any woman who doesn't confirm to this is an adhikarkarmi, dalarwadi, vibhajankari, a nuisance, a bitch.

My salute to those who are not deterred. 

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