For most women of South Asian origin, clothing is never a non-issue—it remains a crucial marker of cultural identity.
Anandibai Joshi was the first Indian woman to enter the American higher education system. In 1883, she sailed from Calcutta to the United States to study at the Woman’s Medical College of Philadelphia (WMCP). In response to criticism that she would be de-cultured abroad, she publicly declared she would maintain her “manners, customs, and language” while in the United States. Wearing a sari was one way in which Joshi ensured that she did so. In late-nineteenth century Philadelphia, she was a sartorial sensation—a “great curiosity” as an alumna of WMCP dubbed her. Newspaper coverage of WMCP’s commencement ceremony in 1886 focused on Joshi’s clothing. The Philadelphia Inquirer described her as “attired in native costume, with an edging of gilt tinsel” and Joshi’s friend from India, Pandita Ramabai, as “conspicuous” in her “mantle” and “observed of all observers.” Harrisburg’s Patriot noted that Joshi “formed a striking contrast to the quiet Western habits of her associates.”
We are both Indian women working at the University of Pennsylvania, not far from Joshi’s campus. We met as teacher and student in a class on postcolonial literature. While studying the historical as well as contemporary controversies around the veil, we started observing each other’s sartorial choices, and thinking about how clothing remains a crucial marker of cultural identity, probably even more so in a post-9/11 world. The veil may be only the most dramatic instance of the way in which clothing is a flashpoint around which so many aspects of cultural belonging or alienation, gender and professional identity coalesce. We began to ask: how do South Asian women in the United States arrive at their decisions about what to wear? Historically, in the Indian subcontinent, women did not adopt Western dress as readily as did their male counterparts or women in other parts of Asia. Today, even though Western clothing has become more common, it has not replaced traditional forms of dress, but is often combined with it. We share here our conversations with women of Indian, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan descent, all connected with the University of Pennsylvania. They include women who were born in the US, and those who migrated at different stages of life, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Their sartorial choices tell us tell us that for most women of South Asian origin, clothing is never a non-issue. They help us understand the agonies and opportunities as experienced by different generations of immigrants, as well as the dynamics of “multiculturalism” in the United States and its universities.
Priya moved from India to Virginia in the 1970s, when she was in her twenties, to complete a medical residency. She was surprised to find that the United States had fewer women doctors than India, and that it was much harder for women to occupy positions of power within the medical establishment. Priya had been used to wearing saris in India as professional attire, and she arrived with suitcase full of them. In the American South, she was expected to wear dresses for formal events. She found this rather uncomfortable, because although trousers were common in India, dresses were not. As the only female in her residency program, and as a woman of colour, “I felt so different. I couldn’t find, or even afford Western clothing that was flattering. There are so many losses in migration, and clothes are also a way of holding onto something.” Today, Priya practices at a major teaching hospital in Philadelphia, and wears trousers and blouses under her white coat; she feels that Western garments are essential to establishing a therapeutic alliance with her patients, for whom her Indian clothing would mark her as different, and ultimately, as someone not to be taken seriously as a doctor.
Farzana was also in her twenties when she moved from Pakistan to Philadelphia in the 1990s to pursue medicine. The transition to trousers and scrubs, however, was not so painful for her as it had been for Priya. The thought of wearing a salvar-kameez (the dominant garb in urban Pakistan) in her professional life here “never really occurred” to her, partly because she did not consider it fashionable at the time. Like Priya, Farzana acknowledges the importance of “blending in” as a doctor. That is one reason why she says she doesn’t “believe in the hijab. Why would you want to stand out?” As a Muslim herself, she also questions whether the “modesty” it supposedly signals has any relevance now: “Maybe the hijab was valid fourteen hundred years ago, or maybe even a hundred years ago, but I don’t think it is valid anymore, at least not in the West.” But, on the other hand, she notes that in Philadelphia, “If a woman wore hijab to work at the hospital, patients and colleagues would think: you’re a Muslim, you’re different. There is bigotry in peoples’ minds, though they may not say it.” These remarks remind us that although many African American women in Philadelphia also wear the hijab, for immigrant women this garment (along with others, like the sari) has the potential to call into question their very right to belong.
Perhaps this is why, though Philadelphia is a diverse city, both Priya and Farzana feel that only Western clothes would make them acceptable to their patients. In their social lives their attitudes differ. Priya confesses that she does not “wear Indian clothing that often now. I become too much an object of curiosity. People see you as too exotic.” On the special occasions that she would prefer to wear a sari, she says, “my husband gets embarrassed. He would rather we blend in.” Farzana is more comfortable wearing Pakistani clothing, especially because current salvar-kameez styles are “much more Westernized…very stylish.” These differences speak in part to the fact that the salvar-kameez is a kind of pantsuit but the sari has no Western analogue, and tends to provoke more comment. But they also speak to the different experiences the two women had on arrival. Priya’s memories of standing out make her cautious about ever doing so, whereas Farzana feels that “exotic is good now, you know? I think society has moved on, being different is considered a plus point.”
Srilata has worn saris since she moved to the U.S. from India in the 1970s. She has worked in retail, at Kinko’s, as a taxi cab driver, and, for the past decade, as a university librarian. On days when she knows that she will be stationed at the information desk of the library, Srilata makes sure to wear saris “so that when people walk in they will say ‘oh, there are Indians also working in this library.’” Srilata’s devotion to the sari is also shaped, in her own telling, by her religiosity. She is a devout Hindu who makes pilgrimages to temples across the U.S, and no matter how long the drive, wears saris “out of respect to God….It is my own personal feeling, nobody says there is anything wrong with wearing pants to temple.” Srilata claims she has never been told that she could not wear Indian clothes, and is dismissive of her friends and relatives who feel the pressure to conform. While her sister stopped wearing a bindi because of constant questions and stares, Srilata proudly recalls how she dealt with them. And although her own children do not feel they can wear Indian clothes to work as doctors or lawyers, Srilata insists that in fact second-generation Indian women should have no such qualms: in the United States, “there is no objection” from the “surrounding culture.”
Indian women born and brought up in the United States tell quite a different tale. Sonia and Ratna are both students at Penn who grew up in places where there were not many Indians—Sonia in a suburb of Little Rock, and Ratna in a suburb of New Hampshire. Sonia was “very self conscious about being Indian in a “cloistered affluent white suburb” full of “churchgoing Baptists eager to proselytize.” Both remember their early aversion to public displays of difference: as a child, Sonia was embarrassed if her mother wore saris outside of Indian gatherings or events, and Ratna remembers refusing to pick up an item from the grocery store because she was wearing Indian clothes. It’s the classic immigrant story, Ratna wryly notes. “Now, I have a lot theoretical frameworks to understand it, like the notion of white privilege. But then, the burden was always on me. I never thought about it as external pressure.”
For Ratna, a formative moment was in high school when several white classmates hurled racial slurs at her as she walked to school. “It shook me to my core. But my parents said, ‘that is what happens in this country. The boys who abused you are probably kids of bus drivers who lost their jobs.’ They did not understand the effect on my psyche. It left a huge hole inside of me. Now I want to organize a rally around events like this.” Her response, at the time, was to “dress more white.” But being in more diverse place like Philadelphia, and “identifying as a woman of colour” she says, has allowed her to embrace her Indian-ness as not just an ethnic but a “political identity. I will wear my kurta, xxxx you!” Sonia and Ratna both resent white women “appropriating” Indian fashions. In college, Sonia was offended when a white professor frequently wore salvar kameezes and saris to campus: “I felt, who are you to wear that? That’s not yours. …She was doing something so casually that I would think long and hard about before doing. I felt uncomfortable. ” Sonia herself wears largely Western clothes but often with Indian shawls, or Indian “kurtis” (short tunics that are worn with trousers). She is very conscious that she can do this in Washington or Philadelphia, but in other places, like rural Arkansas, it invites stares. She vows never to raise her children in any but the most diverse of US cities. When Sonia married a white American man, and had a Hindu ceremony, she was upset at her mother-in-law and sister-in-law’s seemingly thoughtless choice to wear black: “It’s not a funeral! At Indian weddings we wear colour. … My sister in law’s behaviour in particular was very hurtful because she performs her whiteness. She didn’t let her daughters get henna on their hands or put on the cute salwar kameezes my parents had given to them to wear during the ceremony. The outfits were also promptly returned to me after the wedding, unworn and unwanted, which added insult to injury.” If clothes can spell hostility, they can also provide the language for self-assertion. Sonia confesses that when she goes to her in-laws’ place, “I wear Western clothes. At a recent family gathering, I spent a lot of time dressing up in a nice skirt, with careful make-up and hair. It’s interesting: why didn’t I wear Indian clothes? It might be because I was called out on my Indian culture at the wedding.”
Unlike Ratna and Sonia, for whom the Penn campus spelt freedom, Sarah, a Sri Lankan Tamil by birth, felt that Toronto, where she was raised, had far more young people of South Asian origin who had developed an alternative and hybrid style of clothing that indicated who they were. At the University of Toronto, she met many students for whom "Tamil-ness was as contested” as it had been for her. She took courses in postcolonial theory, race and diaspora; her “intellectual development helped me gain confidence in wearing South Asian clothes that I felt uncomfortable about wearing before. I started to think, why is the assumption always whiteness when it comes to dress?" Why were the aesthetics of dress always defined by Western standards, even by her and her “brown friends”? South Asians in Philadelphia were a shock to her. She feels that they dress in very traditional and conservative ways, marking class and caste privilege, and showing none of the experimentation that marks her own wardrobe. Still, Sarah feels a particular responsibility to wear South Asian clothing in daily life in Philadelphia: “In Toronto, there is already a strong South Asian presence and power. Indian clothes are commonplace.” But in Philadelphia, “wearing clothing that marks you as South Asian takes up space in a room, or on the street, and makes a statement about your comfort in who you are as a racialized person, as someone always marked as other.” In Philadelphia, Sarah can make others “reckon with her difference.”
Tazeen, whose Muslim family is originally from Pakistan, grew up in Philadelphia. The city, and the campus have shaped her negotiations with her Muslim identity, and with her clothes. In her fifth grade, her best friend, whose father had newly converted to Islam, asked Tazeen why, as a Muslim, she did not wear the hijab. Tazeen had “no idea what that the hijab was” but soon after, began a daily ritual of pinning a scarf around her head. And soon after, her mother followed suit. After September 11th, 2001, her parents, fearful for her safety, asked her to stop wearing a headscarf. Tazeen was insistent that it would be “wrong” to do so “just because something had happened.” Her parents gave in, because “in Philadelphia, there are a lot of Muslims, and no anti- Muslim incident happened.” While Tazeen has been at college, her mother has become more religious, wearing the full abayah. Tazeen herself has developed into “the kind of Muslim who can question her own faith.” She now fears that her headscarf makes people “assume I am a traditional, pious Muslim woman.” She tries to subvert such assumptions by wearing clothes that are “colourful and crazy.” For example, she says “I have this one shirt from one of my favourite movies, Evil Dead. It looks like the shirt worn by the main character in the movie, which had blood splattered all over it. I feel that if I have some contradiction in my wardrobe it will make people think twice.”
It is significant that the second generation women we spoke to think about ways in which they can combine Western and South Asian clothing to signal who they are, whereas those who came here as adults tend to think more in terms of wearing either one or the other. For both generations, clothes remain a volatile site on which their identities—both personal and professional—are constantly negotiated. One of the few images we have of Joshi is a photograph taken at a school reception in 1885. In it, Joshi is pictured with the other international students at WMCP. What we see is an Indian woman in a sari, a Japanese woman in a kimono, and a Syrian woman in a kaftan. Today, women on US campuses are less likely to wear saris or kimonos, but their clothes continue to signify the ways in which, for South Asian women, clothing and cultural identity necessarily intersect.
Ania Loomba is Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. Her most recent publication is a co-edited collection, South Asian Feminisms. Pavithra Jaisankar is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied Public Health. She currently resides in Philadelphia.