24. The Contested Sari

By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)

The sari as national dress was contested across the early twentieth century as people imagined visions of postcolonial national futurity. Amongst Indian Muslims, many scholars have identified an Islamisation in dress reform from the late nineteenth century. National, religious, regional and transnational modalities ceded into dress debates within various Urdu periodicals read by cross-religious Urdu reading publics. Women’s magazines also discussed local and transnational shifts in conflicting identifications of a unifying mulki [national] or qaumi [community] dress. This comportment project emerged long before a separate nation for Muslims became a viable reality.[1] In 1927, an Ismat article entitled “Hamari Labaas” (Our Clothing) was written in response to a 1926 article on Muslim women’s clothing by male author, Mohammad Zafar. The disgruntled Hamshir Nalwar from South India contested Zafar’s assertion of the superiority of pajama dupatta [trousers and veil] over saris. According to Zafar, saris displayed the nakedness of the body. Nalwar, in contrast, states that Muslim women tie their saris in a different way to Brahmin (high-caste) women so that they remain identifiable from Hindus through wrapping techniques and supplementary clothing items such as jackets, sari corners [anchal] and skirts [lengha]. In doing so, she exalts southern regionality over religion in observing dress customs. This response questions the homogenous construction of a “qaumi Muslim labaas” [national Muslim dress] and reminds us of the distinct junctures of race and class between northern and southern India. Reformers discussing “qaumi Muslim labaas” variously cited Islamic sources of authority (Quran and the Sunnah), questioned the sari’s regional popularity in east Bengal and drew on localised connections across the Indian Ocean (Burma, Malaya and Jeddah) to argue that different Muslim communities had their own dress. Others looked beyond the distinction of saris and shalwars [trousers] to argue that dress was “qaumi” if it was comfortable, modest, simple, and economical [iqtisadi] and “pak saaf” [ritually pure and clean]. This simpler, purer choice was actually very similar to the gendered elements of dress reform advocated by Hindu reformers.

Image: Ravi Varma, “Woman holding a fan” (c.1895- 1900), this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas.


[1] The Lahore Resolution of the Muslim League in 1940 formally advocated the establishment of a separate homeland for Muslims.

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