I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit Mumbai, India as part of a sabbatical project this past January for three weeks. While there, I wrote a daily blog of my experiences and perceptions. Here are some thoughts on public identity markers from February 1, 2013. I invite your comments!
Walking down the street or in a mall in San Diego, I have little idea who is walking beside me. Of course, there are some markers of socio-economic status based on clothes, shoes or handbags, but the rest is mostly style. Style only can tell you so much about a person. In India, it is much different. What you wear, and how you wear it, may announce to the world your ethnic heritage, state of origin, and religion.
|Sari styles from Wikipedia;|
I don't know know why they
draw such masculine women.
If you are a Muslim woman, you may cover your clothing with a black garment when you go out in public, called hijab. The choice of hijab may be dictated by a woman's particular sect of Islam, her age and marital status, or may be imposed upon her by her husband who has the right to ask her to wear it. She may wear a chador, allowing her face to be uncovered, a burka which allows only a slit for the eyes, or varying types of head scarves and face coverings. I've seen scarves and face coverings (not exactly veils, but more like bandit masks) in all colors and white, aside from the traditional black. Colorful ones are most usually worn by younger women.
|Behind a Bohra Muslim woman, Chor Bazaar|
|Sharanam girls in salwar kameez|
|Muslim school boys at the park|
It strikes me that in a highly stratified society, it helps to know who you're dealing with immediately. A person can temper his level of language (formal or informal) and mode of interacting very quickly based on his perception of the other person. In a place where women have many restrictions, clothing and other outward manifestations of identity can pinpoint, basically, what you should and shouldn't be doing. In the U.S., where we are bred to be independent and individualistic, we tend to care less about who you are and where you come from than where are you going and how you will get there. Our clothes do not reflect history, beliefs and social roles, but our choice of how we wish to represent ourselves. You can be an Anglo girl wearing kente cloth or an Asian woman wearing an embroidered huipil from the Yucatan, and it has nothing to do with your family background. I imagine that without these markers, Indian people without much exposure to Western dress must be fairly lost when they first arrive in the U.S.
|Three of the "Five Ks" in Sikhism|
|Carrying clean laundry|
out of dhobi ghats
On occasions where it is hard to determine your identity, Indians can get flummoxed. For instance, Karen (my friend, and the Executive Director of the Aasha Foundation) and I accompanied B (one of the Sharanam girls) to an art school, where she may enroll in a certification course in photography. We spoke to a very friendly and kind faculty member who stepped out of his class to answer our questions and take us on a tour of the school. (Karen said this probably would not have happened had we been Indian.) But before he warmed up to us, he was very hesitant to give us information until he understood just what our relationship to B was. Faculty member: "So, you are from where?" Karen: "I live here in Mumbai, in Bandra.""And she (B) is from...?" "Also Mumbai." (Look of puzzlement. Chat about something else.) "So, you do what exactly in Mumbai...?" "I consult on projects (purposefully vague answer)." (Look of puzzlement doesn't abate.) "So, you are her...?" Karen: "I'm family." Finally, he seemed to get it, that Karen was ultimately responsible for B and would provide the financial and academic support she needed to succeed in the program. After that, he relaxed and invited us to see the school. Making that connection clear is always important, Karen says. Without family and the kind of support children need to complete educational programs, schools of all kinds are less likely to accept a student. If Karen and B had worn the same type of sari, it might have been a little easier for him.