By Samee Callahan
I’ve never been the type to really care too much about fashion. Typically, I would way rather spend money on a burger than a new top. I used to see fashion as this shallow, meaningless, unfulfilling aspect of life. That all changed when I went to India for three weeks.
India, a wildly beautiful developing country of 1.3 billion people, is a highly religious country with 80% of people being of the Hindu faith. This high level of religiosity heavily influences the culture of India. While I was there, it was recommended that I (and my fellow classmates) dress in traditional garb. Traditional garb for a woman consists of ¾ long sleeved, knee-length kurtas (blouses), with pants or leggings that cover the ankle, and a scarf. This sort of feminine modesty started with religion and has become a cultural norm at this point. I didn’t think the requirement of covering my body would bother me so much until I actually had to do it.
Now, there are a few reasons why it was recommended we dress a certain way, religion and tradition being one of them. Another reason (the reason that really got under my skin) was that to men, women are nothing but sexual objects. Even if a woman is appropriately covered, if a man does not accompany her, she runs the very high risk of being violated in public on the streets. How incredibly frustrating is it to think that a mere moment of satisfaction for a man can be a lifetime of discomfort for a woman?
While I was in class in India, the professor asked what we had noticed was different about India compared to where we’re from. Without even thinking twice I mentioned the clothing and how I felt very oppressed. I spoke about wearing shorts and my longing for the freedom I’m so accustomed to… and that’s when it hit me. Before that moment I had never associated clothing with freedom because I never had that freedom taken away from me. And this brings me to the concept of understanding cultures.
It’s typically easy to tell if someone is culturally different from you. Some examples of cultural practices that are different than my own are if someone wears a hijab, eats with their hands, or participates in arranged marriages, and so on. In order to fully understand cultures different than our own, we must look deeper into the values behind those practices. I wear shorts because a) it’s hot outside, b) I have the freedom to do so, and c) it’s an American tradition. Something else to understand is every person has their own reasons for doing the things they do; reasons they may not even be aware of (like me). Next time you meet someone culturally different than you, I encourage you to engage in a respectful conversation with him or her. You learn more from people who are different from you than from those who are similar.
I also think it’s important to be cognizant of and analyze our own cultural practices and their associated values to see if they’re even in line with our conscious belief system. I appreciate clothing and fashion so much more now that I understand the struggle endured by many feminists before me that has allowed me to wear whatever I want. This sort of freedom wasn’t just given to us and it should be celebrated. Nowadays, you’ll occasionally find me skipping the burger for a pair of what I like to call “freedom shorts.”