Thursday, July 16, 2009

My orna and me -- Walking around as a woman in Dhaka, Bangladesh

by Stine Eckert, Pulitzer Student Fellow

Stine Eckert traveled to Bangladesh as a Pulitzer Center Student. Learn more and see all her reporting:

Whereas Western dress shirts and dress pants are the socially most acceptable outfit for Bangladeshi men, women predominantly still dress traditionally in Dhaka, Bangladesh. A note on experiencing clothing for women.

Every time I leave my room I have to wrap myself up, with a scarf called an orna.

My orna more or less lives on both of my shoulders and forms a “u” or “v”-shape in front of my breast to cover up my female shape. The ends of my orna dangle loosely on both sides of my back, reaching down to my hips or knees, depending on the length.

My orna has become my permanent companion in Bangladesh ever since a Bangladeshi girl showed me how to wear it properly. Well, at least I try. Without it, I have come to feel something is missing. This doesn’t mean we have a purely peaceful coexistence. No, my orna can be quite a nuisance and when I return to my room, I usually fling it on the sofa immediately. That’s in private.

In public, the orna (sometime also spelled urna) is part of the most prevalent outfit for women in Bangladesh, the so-called three-piece. It starts with baggy pants that taper down at the ankle of the foot and building a balloon shape around the woman’s thighs. They are matched by a long or short blouse and crowned by the orna.

For elements number one and two I stick to wearing jeans or loose linen pants I brought from home, matched by more or less bulky short-sleeve shirts, which seem to be accepted. Since element number three was missing, I was encouraged by several visitors to Bangladesh and Bangladeshis themselves, male and female, to fill the lack of element number three by draping some fabric around my upper body.

Embracing this new style of clothing, in the impossible attempt to blend into rest of female society, I donned a yellow-orange scarf, given to me by an Indian friend. I felt a bit like wearing the uniform of an alien species in Star Trek, a uniform I am constantly fighting with.

Every couple of minutes I need to reign in my orna to make sure it doesn’t travel down one of my shoulders. It also tries to move either to close to my neck softly strangling me when the dusty winds rush through the channel-like streets or droops to low uncovering the desired parts. Its fabric has an incessant desire to bond with the rough bark of trees, discover the pots of street vendors, flirt with the hood of cars that come dangerously close in the constantly thick traffic, or whisper to the concrete of the street.

Once a gusty wind blew the orna up into my face; girls driving by got a good laugh out of me. Imagine running an obstacle course while wearing a blanket in front of you.

I alternate between three ornas, a yellow-orange, a green, and a turquoise-brown one. One is like a short thin net, the other one like a thick blanket big enough to cover me for a nap, and the third feels like a long soft alga. All of them like to use my arms as slides, all of them are eager to make acquaintances with palm leaves along the road, all of them form alliances with my purse to keep me captive while I rummage for a handkerchief and try to keep breathing.

I have been trying to improve our relationship by observing how Bangladeshi women tame their ornas. They wear them elegantly with the color always matching the rest of their three-piece. Their ornas sit confidently on their shoulders, never misbehaving. If so, a tiny tuck shows them who’s the boss. Their ornas don’t seem to bother them. On the contrary, they employ it frequently to cover their heads against the hot-glowing sun. At least half the women don’t wear headscarves and the orna can be pulled over their heads quickly if needed such as when the muezzin calls for prayer and covering one’s head shows respect for the song-like reminder. But even then not all women seek cover.

In short, Bangladeshi women live in peace with their ornas, and the rest of their baggy dress. Few women wear jeans or other Western-style clothing. A 15-year old girl I interviewed at Nari Jibon, a small project teaching practical skills to women, told me she would like to wear jeans but it’s not accepted. In her tailoring class she learns how to sew fatuas—a shorter loose blouse—and three-pieces. That’s also what most shops offer in addition to the better-known saree, a five-meter long fabric matched by a tiny blouse, which seems to be worn more often by older women.

Traditional outfits for men consist of shirts and lungis, a skirt-like piece of fabric that is knotted around the hips and usually reaches to the ankles. But unlike the traditional dress of women, the lungi is not so prevalent among men, who can afford a business outfit. Workers on the street, rickshaw pullers, construction workers, street vendors all wear lungis. Businessmen who want respect don’t, at least not in public. I’ve been told they wear them at home and when they go to bed since they’re really comfortable.

Some other men on the streets wear long-sleeve shirts, called panjabi, matched by loose pants, and a little cap, often in white or lighter colors. Asking a Bangladeshi what that means it seemed that these men practice their religion more. Wearing a cap is a requirement for prayer, wearing the whole outfit might indicate that this man has completed his hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, which every Muslim should do once in her/his life.

The crisp business suits, tightly tailor fitted for the working male, however, rule the world of men in public while women walk wrapped in a cloud of pretty colored ornas and sarees.
Awkwardly I stumble along, ready to scold and adjust my orna for its next attempt to mock me.

Photo: Nipu, Shadia, and Tasnuva wear matching ornas -- big, long scarves -- to match the rest of their three-piece outfit, the traditional outfit for women in Bangladesh apart from the saree.

Learn more and see all of Stine's reporting:

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