Being a Child of the South Asian Diaspora Means Having Different Wardrobes
It was in California that I realized my liberation was tied to my choice in clothing
During my teen years in New York City, I would take frequent trips to a local McDonald’s to use its public bathroom. There, I would shed layers of clothing and switch into a miniskirt before going out. Upon returning home, I would make a quick visit to the same restroom to disassemble my getup and return to a sweatshirt and jeans. I did this frequently enough that the manager and I were on a first-name basis. Many young, especially Muslim, South Asian women echo a similar tale of navigating personal style and home life. It’s a sartorial code switch.
My parents migrated to the United States from Bangladesh in 1991. I was not even born yet.
In my mother’s luggage was an iconic amount of dried fish and three saris that journeyed with her across the world. My earliest childhood memories are of me tugging on my mom’s dupatta to get her attention. When my mother would see other women who were strangers wearing salwar kameezes, she felt a sense of community. While my mother wore Bangladeshi clothes, my mother dressed me in American clothes, typically consisting of a hoodie and jeans. Her traditional dress practices shifted when she got a job as a cashier. To connect with her colleagues and appease urgings from her employer, she began wearing Western clothes.
I was around nine years old then. I felt an immediate shock witnessing my mother’s transformation, like she took off her skin and exchanged it for one with American homogeneity. Some Bangladeshi people on the streets would glare at her with confusion, as if choosing a cashmere sweater over a salwar kameez was an act of betrayal to her roots. Others would pity her, empathizing with the sacrifice immigrants have to make to survive in the United States. My mother mediates the spectrum of responses by prioritizing her comfort. She dreams of returning to Bangladesh, where she could wear her kurtas and salwars with ease. For now, convenience will have to do.
My mother’s traditional upbringing did not perfectly translate onto me. Unlike my mother, I was born and raised in the United States; I was immersed from my earliest age in Americanization. Growing up, my parents always warned against tropes of haram behavior: engaging with boys, drinking and smoking, staying out late, and wearing revealing clothes. All these activities characterized women as shameful. Baring skin through clothes was the most salient indecency, because wearing shorts would always prompt one question out of my mother: “What will people think?” Daughters are a reflection onto their families; having shame is both virtuous and feminine, playing to the stereotypes of a decent moral woman. A mother in South Asian Muslim communities must install a sense of shame in their daughters, which orients into daughters covering up.
My legs craved the touch of direct sunlight; Dior shorts became my chosen uniform.
My mother did an excellent job of teaching me shame; I grew up accepting a “limited skin rule,” for the most part. After moving to California at age 19 to complete a fellowship, however, I started experimenting with style. It was the coming-of-age chronicles of a brown woman. I realized my liberation was tied to my individual expression.
I developed a love affair with crop tops. My legs craved the touch of direct sunlight; Dior shorts became my chosen uniform. I chose to unlearn the fashion impositions policing my behavior and disturbing my sense of self. Last summer, after months of escalation and work to normalize rebellious dressing, I self-determined my clothes openly.
Clothes facilitate a mode of self-awareness. In my imagination, I would wear four-inch heels with a bindi and salwar kameez to a corporate setting to decenter whiteness and fulfill my truth. However, I understand that fitting in is often more conducive, digestible, and necessary to exist in the environments I inhabit. Deciding what is appropriate involves both introspection and examination of the tone of the setting I will be presenting myself in.
Sometimes it is more convenient to change into a bodysuit and skirt at a friend’s house before a night out than to risk the South Asian community’s gaze. The gaze pervades beyond “Look at what she is wearing” to “How could her mother let her walk around in that?” and “Where is her shame and her entire family’s shame?”
The first time I rocked shorts in front of my mother, she told me to change. When I refused, she cried. Although my mother would criticize me for wearing revealing clothes, I continued to do it as an act of existential necessity and personal growth. After months of back-and-forth, she realized I was not going to stop. She had no choice but to listen to me and respect me as an adult. She eventually bought me some mom jeans!
I often choose my wardrobe based on my relationship to the social world. My mother noticed me completely covering up when I visited the mosque or a predominantly South Asian neighborhood. She did not understand my brand of fluidity. I explained to her that I respect notions of modesty, but I also love flirty outfits. Verbal dialogue and allowing my mother to explore discomfort led her to finally lean in. It took time, but I had very honest conversations with her about my personal style and vision of diasporic identity. Her sympathy comes from being a person of the diaspora and understanding the nuances of negotiation. While I no longer need to keep certain wardrobe choices secret from my family, I still at times tone down my normative Western dressing to reconcile with the reality of gaze and cultural perception.
I am actively unpacking and consulting between expressing myself, fitting in, unlearning patriarchal undertones, resisting norms, and staying close to my roots. The complicated territory of mediating the public and private worlds through clothes for people of the Muslim South Asian diaspora requires reflection. How do I want to perform in this space today? What are the stakes and costs of engaging with certain clothes? How am I best representing myself and also working toward freedom?
When I wear a bikini to the beach, sometimes I wonder if I am leaving my Muslim card at home. I may carry this feeling with me forever, but I can cope with it because I am critically thinking about the impact of my dress choices. I am making an active decision to manifest an expression I find fitting. I also manage my anxieties by diluting the impact of the gaze. Some days, I may choose to confront the gaze; other days, I decide to conform to the space.
Clothes pull in the worlds around us and help us remake them as our own. Our dress choices are affected by social constructs but are also moments of closeness with self. Even in code switching, we have agency to tell diasporic stories; I celebrate my ability to wear a salwar kameez one day and a halter top the next.
It’s always magical to meet other brown women who know about the McDonald’s bathroom tactic. I have built community with these “deviant” South Asian women who celebrate multidimensionality through expression of clothes. We usually meet on the dance floor, gloriously breaking curfews in our mesh dresses.