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Keep The Clothes: Why Honoring Cultures from Indian Subcontinent Crucial To Sense of Self

Keep The Clothes: Why Honoring Cultures from Indian Subcontinent Crucial To Sense of Self

In all the places my parents have lived in North America – Chicago, Toronto and Calgary — I can’t remember a time when I have visited them and haven’t been asked to try on Pakistani clothes.

“I can alter this kameez for you. It’s too long,” my mom says, surveying my 5’2” frame and spreading out her hand to measure how much of the top needs alteration.

Or, as I grimace while she examines the inseam around my hips, “Thank goodness there is some gunjaish. I can undo the hem and make it wider so it’s not so tight.”

Gunjaish is an Urdu word for roominess, a term I’ve been hearing all my life as my mom sits down at her sewing machine to make adjustments that will make my clothes looser.

The outfits I try on with my mother are stylish and modest Pakistani shalwar kameezes, lehengas or ghararas, or kurtas with fitted “pajamas” or trousers that we’ve purchased off-the-rack or “ready-made” from retail stores in Pakistan and the U.S. The clothes are constructed from high quality cotton or the finest fabrics available from the Indian subcontinent such as double georgette, organza silk, crepe, taffeta and French chiffon.

As a first-generation Pakistani-Canadian born and raised in Calgary, I learned early on about Pakistan’s reputation as the fashion capital of the Indian subcontinent and, more broadly, the Islamic world.

As such, many well-to-do Pakistanis — those living there and abroad  — have taken on an unspoken duty to represent their country as fashion-forward spokespeople to the rest of the world.

Over the past few decades, Pakistani dramas and TV shows have gained widespread popularity around the world for their unconventional and compelling plot lines, relatable characters and programming that’s suitable for families. A number of popular programs from Pakistan’s Geo Entertainment are available on Amazon Prime Video.

Despite the influx of South Asian immigrants to the United States over the past several decades, research shows there is still widespread ignorance about the history, diverse countries, religions and cultural nuances of people from the Indian subcontinent. For instance, in Pakistan alone, there are six major ethnic groups and 80 languages.

I remember a perplexed coworker wondering how on earth my father could love beef; after all, she reasoned, weren’t all people of Indian descent vegetarian?

More than 75 years after the British colonists divided up India and then fled immediately, people comprising the Indian diaspora are faced with overcoming misconceptions about their cultures, faiths and identities.

In her latest bookLegacy of Violence: A History of The British Empire, Harvard Business School Professor Caroline Elkins showcases how the British Empire grew a Victorian-era idea about punishing disobedient “natives” into a widespread system of subjugation.

She outlines how the country exported and institutionalized racially motivated violence, then covered it up as it lost its grip on imperial rule. The “divide and rule” strategy incited horrendous violence, uprooted millions of people from their homeland, grew resentment among the diverse people who had lived on common land for generations, and bred ignorance about people of Indian origin in the U.S and globally. 

recent report estimates the British Empire killed 165 million Indians in 40 years, a figure larger than the combined number of deaths from both World Wars including the Nazi holocaust.

Yet particularly in Western countries, the massive devastation caused by colonialism often gets lost in narratives about the nation’s perceived cultural superiority, or in the pageantry and allure of the British monarchy.

In Prince Harry’s new book Spare, he writes about how he and brother William fought over who would “get” Africa as a “cause,” a clear indication that the colonial mindset is alive and well.  They see the vast and complex continent that’s home to the most diverse population on earth as a plaything for British royalty.

When I was growing up, at the dinner parties my parents hosted for their Pakistani community expat friends in Canada, the women draped themselves in colorful, vibrant outfits embellished with intricate borders, elaborate embroidery and other stitched work or kaam.

Even the icy, treacherous driveways didn’t hinder their enthusiasm to wear light flowy saris and four-inch heels in the middle of cold snowy Canadian winters. They spoke about the latest styles proudly and confidently, the intricate subtleties of fabrics from the homeland rolling off their tongues with elegance and ease, and they often proclaimed Pakistanis’ superior sense of style over their rival Indian neighbors.

Our childhood trips to Pakistan during summer breaks in the 1980s were filled with shopping. I remember feeling simultaneously intrigued and nauseated as we roamed Karachi’s street bazaars in the stifling afternoon heat through swarms of people.

The shopkeepers, mostly working-class men, stood in front of stalls laden with cloths of every shade, texture and material. They would call out to us and start unraveling bolts off their shelves in earnest, determined to stand out and make a sale amidst throngs of similar vendors.

The hunt for fabric was followed by a search for adornments including beads, sequins or a pati (trim) for the border that would make the outfit stand out. Finding a complimentary dupatta (scarf) to bring it all together and ensure modesty was the final touch. The tailor would then be called on to take body measurements and receive instructions on creating a beautiful, custom-made, one-of-a-kind jora for a wedding, dawat (party), or special event.

In addition to textiles and style, many Pakistanis pride themselves on a food-centered culture, much of which was inherited from the subcontinent’s Muslim Mughal rulers before the British arrived.

The implications of wealth and privilege associated with Pakistani food such as meat korma curries, saffron-flavored basmati rice dishes, flakey flat breads and rich elaichi (cardamom) flavored desserts has made it commonly deemed as being fit for kings.

While the countries making up the Indian subcontinent today — India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives — have similarities, they also have many significant differences. In the U.S., terms such as “brown,” “desi” or “South Asian” seem to have found their place to create unity and inclusivity among many people of Indian descent.

The latest news from Pakistan includes a lurking economic crisis and recent terrorist attacks. In the post-British colonial era, where the world is finally reckoning with the magnitude of white supremacy’s detrimental effects on people of color, it feels necessary and important to maintain cultural distinctions.

It recognizes our humanity and ensures our history and stories don’t get lost within a generalized, often negative and misinformed, narrative of people comprising the Indian diaspora.

I may identify as brown, desi and South Asian – but I also have given myself the gunjaish to wear the Pakistani-American identity badge with pride.

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