Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Who Are You? Social markers of identity in Mumbai

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.
I can't claim to know much about the varying identity markers, but here are some of the interesting things I've picked up on since I've been here. For women, a sari generally means you are more traditional (of the 'Old India' as they say) or dressed up for a special event. Saris are most often worn as everyday dress by women over 30 or so. Of course, you know it as a long piece of colorful fabric, about 3 meters/9 feet long, wrapped around the waist and draped over the shoulder. A tightly-fitted cutoff shirt, the choli, is worn underneath, and often the midriff is bared from the sides. The design of the fabric and the way you wrap your sari denotes your region of origin (for a very basic outline of some of these wrapping styles in Wikipedia click here.) Saris are most common for Hindu women. A Catholic woman, on the other hand, wears a Western "house dress" to distinguish herself from a Hindu.

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
One sect of Islam, called Bohra, allows women to wear a colorful garment that covers the body like a burka and a matching head piece that frames the face. To an outsider, the Bohra Muslim women look like colorful Quakers. To give you an idea of how much can be "read" by a Mumbaikar based on clothing alone, the garments not only say Bohra Muslim, they say specifically the Shia sect of Islam, Gujarati speaker, vegetarian, likely in business, moderate to progressive values.

Sharanam girls in salwar kameez
While Western dress is worn most often by high school and college aged kids, a secular middle ground is occupied by the salwar kameez. This is a three piece set, a tunic, pants, and scarf. The salwar is ubiquitous, worn by all ages, and does not denote religion or ethnicity. It is fashion. Like the sari, the salwar kameez is colorful and feminine, and can be casual or quite formal. Karen, Camille and I - and all the Sharanam girls - wore salwar kameez to the Child Reach Annual Day dance show, where more formal dress was requested. (Note: These are friends who care for abandoned girls at a family shelter home called Sharanam.)

For men and children, there are also identity markers. Men mostly wear Western dress in Mumbai, but it is also very common to see Muslim men in tunics and caps. If a Muslim man is wearing white, it is prayer day (Friday). If a man has a large red bindi (dot made with red pigment) on his forehead, he is Hindu and has gone to temple that day. Punjabi Sikhs are identified by their turbans, wrapped in a specific style. A taxi driver owns the taxi if he is wearing a white uniform; works for someone else if he is wearing khaki.

Muslim school boys at the park
School children can be identified immediately by their uniforms: Urdu schools, government schools, private schools and Catholic (or "Convent") schools each have a different uniform. Just looking at the child can tell a person what your resources are: do you have enough money or a good enough family to send your child to a private or Catholic school?

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
In an interesting example of Indian identity markers, practicing Sikhs (from Punjab) are required to wear five "articles of faith"at all times. If they do not possess all of these items, they are not considered to be "practicing." The five articles are also known as the "Five Ks," for each begins with the letter K in Punjabi. They each have symbolic resonance for a practitioner. A Sikh must have with him (or her) at all times: uncut hair (men tie theirs in a turban daily); a wooden comb; an iron bangle (with a silver tone, uncommon for Indians who prefer gold); Sikh boxer shorts (making the wearer ready for battle at any time); and a kirpan, or ceremonial dagger of 4"- 6". Sikhs are recognized throughout history for their fierceness and willingness to put themselves in harm's way. This is lost on Americans, generally, who don't associate turbans with strength, power and the struggle against evil. Karen says that they employ plastic daggers for getting through security at airports, to maintain their identity while also being able to board a plane. It's hard enough nowadays to board a plane in a turban; they know the dagger wouldn't be a good thing to argue over with security agents.

Carrying clean laundry
out of dhobi ghats
Another way to identify people is based on what they carry. It seems everyone is carrying something here, especially if they work for someone else. Women and men carry bulging bags of laundry on their heads; children carry backpacks and schoolbooks if they are lucky, cheap barrettes or earrings to sell if they are not; men carry all shapes and sizes of boxes, bags, and trunks in addition to metal racks, sugar cane, chairs, bamboo scaffolding, etc. on their shoulders, backs and heads. If you are a tiffin-wallah, you carry a six foot metal rack piled high with lunch boxes on your shoulders. If you are a "coolie" (yes, they use that word) in Crawford Market, you carry a large, shallow basket on our shoulders in which to place all the wholesale items that a customer wants to buy.

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.

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