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On Clothes And Modernity

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In a high school history book published in the United States and circulated to an extent in Bangladesh is a picture of the Japanese and Chinese negotiating terms of surrender after the first Sino-Japanese War. Part of the caption reads: "Notice the difference in clothing between the two parties: the Japanese are wearing suits while the Chinese are still wearing their traditional clothes".


As a young lad, I was all for 'modernity' of the Japanese sort, the kind of modernity that degrades a human being. The spirit of 'modernity' has been caught powerfully in film by Bernardo Bertolucci. In 'The Last Emperor", we hear the emperor's cousin, a young woman trained by the Japanese as a fighter pilot, say to the Empress: "I wish I could bomb Shanghai". The Empress flounces out of the room: an apt repartee.


Now, a tad wiser, I am bemused by the word. What could it possibly mean? Today, the Japanese still wear the kimono, according to the Britannica, and sociologists point out the absence of civil society and a culture of obedience in the third-richest country in the world: all this makes Japan unmodern (it can't be premodern with such superior technology, one presumes). Even the United States qualifies for nonmodernity because of the lingering belief in (God!) God. Modernity was supposed to have done with all that nonsense. What about Europe, then? Is it the sole lighthouse of modernity in a darkness of the nonmodern? Afraid not. Europe is run by unelected bureaucrats, so fails to qualify as a modern society. The word, then, has no meaning: like the unicorn or the Minotaur, we know whereof we speak, but not of what we speak.


Trousers, then, do not make for modernity. The Japanese referred to at the outset were trouser-wearing savages, as subsequent events were soon to tell. Even today, the memory of what the Japanese did to a 'backward', 'premodern' people is seared into the victims' collective memory. If modernity means anything today, surely it must be the loss of conscience.


I was talking to a 'modern' Turkish girl who felt it necessary to justify her trousers and shirt on the grounds that she was not a farm girl. Farm girls in Turkey, it seems, wear the shalwar (a loose, trouser-like garment). Curious argument, that. My mother, my wife and the farm girl in Bangladesh all wear the same garment: the saree. Yet the first two of them have never had to bend down over a single stalk of paddy with the mud between their toes. Apparently, one doesn't have to leave village gear behind when embarking upon urban life. At my wits' end, I asked my youngest sister-in-law, a highly qualified eye specialist, if wearing the shalwar or the saree did not make the doctors at her hospital inefficient. She was puzzled by my question and said, "We all either wear shalwar-kameez or the saree, and they have never made us inefficient!" I felt suitably stupid after that remonstrance.

"Because we share some necessities with European women. For example, I prefer to wear jeans and T-shirt too. Because I need easily to use my legs and arms." These were the words of my 'modern' Turkish interlocutor.

I see: unless you wear jeans and T-shirts, you cannot easily use your legs and arms (karate and judo teachers take note); therefore, only European women easily use their legs and arms, and those who wear jeans and T-shirt; women in Bangladesh do not easily use their legs and arms. Over two million female workers toil in our garments factories and they wear shalwar: so they can't use their legs and arms, even though they are competing with garments workers from all over the world, including Europe and America. I wonder if this somehow fits into the theory of comparative advantage.


Indeed, if one forced the millions of trishaw-pullers in Bangladesh to wear pants instead of lungis, they would be positively inefficient. If the pants didn't burst at the first push of the pedal when overcoming the inertia of rest, then it certainly would tear when controlling the inertia of motion. And one must remember that Bangladesh is poor, not because our farmers wear lungis (a sort of waist-high garment that's held together by a knot at the belly), but because we lack good governance: twenty years of 'modern' democracy has had no effect on poverty. And one must remember that the green revolution was made possible not by a change in the farmer's get-up, but by a breakthrough in rice variety.


But there's more to the story than efficiency. When a Bangladeshi friend of ours resident in Canada was here to spend a vacation, she never wore trousers, but always the shalwar-kameez. Her sisters-in-law, who preen themselves on being 'modern' girls, had a good laugh over her bucolic simplicity at which the poor girl took considerable offence. Now, inefficiency does not provoke laughter: inappropriateness does. A 'modern' girl living in Canada has no business wearing local dresses. Even 'modern' girls here don't wear them. Not because they are inefficient, but because they are not -- western.

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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "ˇBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "ˇTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "ˇHe is also a (more...)
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