A recent trip to Bangladesh made me think about the concept of modesty. Modesty generally refers to being unassuming or moderate in one’s behavior or comportment. In my Bangladeshi Muslim immigrant family, modesty has always been about what we wore — modest dress. In Islam, both men and women are supposed to dress modestly, but as we all know, rules apply very differently to men and women, no matter what religion you are. In our family, modest dress meant no short skirts or shorts, and definitely no cleavage.
Rebelling against the rules
As a teenager, I subverted these rules by wearing long baggy sweaters and jeans when leaving the house in the morning. Before homeroom, I’d go into the bathroom, which was usually filled with girls shaking giant aerosol cans of hairspray and spraying their permed hair. This was in the ‘80s, and so these weren’t trial size beauty supplies. Girls would carry around these huge cans in their purses, kind of like ‘80s mace. I’d sneak behind them into a bathroom stall, unpeel my “modest” layer of clothes, and waltz off to class in whatever midriff baring top and mini skirt I had stolen from the mall (I’m sorry but I was an incorrigible shoplifter in high school — please don’t tell my parents). After school, I’d head back to the bathroom, put my modest layer back on, and get on the bus, back in disguise.
In college, things got a little easier, at least when it came to my clothing. I just had to make sure there weren’t any photos with scandalous outfits visible when my parents visited. These were the days before Facebook and social media made everything you did public, so that even your mom could see.
As I got older, I started to care less and less about modesty, and even less about religion. My philosophy of life, my religion, if you will, was about gratitude and celebration. My clothes were more outrageous than immodest, including that unfortunate year where I wore tie-dyed long johns in public, like all the time. Thank God there was no Instagram then. I would never have lived that down.
By the time I moved to Bangladesh in my 30s, it was a real struggle to bring modesty back into my life. One of the most common South Asian outfits is the shalwar kamis, which consists of a dress-like tunic worn over baggy draw-string pants. The third part of this outfit is the orna, which is a long scarf that can be worn in a number of ways. Most traditionally, it’s draped in a V or U shape across your chest and over your shoulders, nominally covering one’s breasts. Lots of women wear it close around their necks like a choker with long tails. It’s also often draped over just one shoulder. These are more gestures towards modesty because most of these styles don’t really cover your chest.
I found the orna to be really annoying. It didn’t stay put, sometimes fell off a shoulder, hung unevenly, or dragged. It felt fussy. Then one day, I saw a woman from the southern hill tribes of Bangladesh wearing her orna totally differently. She had tied two adjacent corners and slung the knot across one shoulder like a messenger bag. I loved the look and immediately adopted it. Not only did it stay put, even when hiking, but it was actually more modest because it covered all the naughty bits. Why weren’t more women doing this, I wondered, if they were interested in modesty or convenience? Rather, my new orna wearing style garnered unwelcome attention, because it looked weird, which was unfortunate because I was already a freak in Bangladesh with my tie-dyed curly hair.
Modesty: A State of Mind
About two years into my Dhaka life, I met a woman who had dispensed with the orna altogether. I was shocked and awed. Her kamises were tailored to her buxom body, and there was no voluminous piece of fabric to hide any of it. Not only this, she was a spitfire, and if anyone looked askance or dared to say anything, from the old man in the park to the female shop attendant, she would curse them out in perfect shocking Bangla slang.
It would take me another year to follow suit, but in the last seven years, I have gone orna-less in Bangladesh. It feels totally normal, in the way that your sense of modesty is a state of mind. If you think it’s fine, it’s fine. If you don’t, there’s no telling you otherwise.
These days, Bangladesh is heading towards a more conservative state of mind. The national dress of Bangladesh is a sari but you usually only see them at weddings and fancy events. Every single woman on my father’s side of the family is now wearing a hijab, even though just 10 years ago, none of them did. There are more burqa-clad women on the streets of Dhaka than before my mother’s time. It’s dispiriting, considering my grandmother’s generation fought to end Purdah, the hiding of women from sight and society.
“Now, let go your anchal.”
Last December, I went to Bangladesh with my parents to attend three different family weddings. Two nieces and one nephew, all on my father’s side of the family, were getting married. All told, my parents and I attended nine different wedding events. The South Asians who read this will be unsurprised.
I wore saris to each of these events, borrowing number after gorgeous number from my friend Neeta’s incredible collection. One of the many nice things about saris is that they are one-size-fits-all. The blouse, however, is another matter. I owned one black blouse that had been custom tailored to me years ago. Black, I figured, goes with everything. However, I had not anticipated wearing the same blouse to nine events in two weeks. Yet this is exactly what I did this past December. After the fifth event, my mother asked me if I had any other blouses. I had to break the bad news. She and everyone else would have to see this blouse four more times.
But what I was initially more concerned about was whether this blouse was modest enough. It was a sleeveless blouse because sleeves make my armpits sweaty. The halter-top style left the entirety of my shoulders bare. And like most blouses, it stopped right under my breasts, revealing my stomach and back.
All of my cousin sisters and aunties would be in hijab. Would I be showing up at the wedding not only immodestly dressed, but culturally clueless, or worst of all, rude? In an attempt to address this potential disaster, I took the anchal of my sari, the decorated part of the sari that goes over the shoulder and falls long in the back, and I wrapped it around my shoulders. We were having an unusually cold winter in Dhaka, and so it didn’t look odd.
When I got to the wedding venue, the street was draped and canopied by fairy lights, hundreds of strings of lights that made everything look magical. I walked into the bright bustle of guests and bumped into the mother of the bride, a lovely, witty, modestly dressed woman called Momota. By the way, modest dress in Bangladesh does not mean sober or neutral colours. Momota was wearing a hot pink sari with purple embroidery. Underneath the sari was a long sleeve blouse that definitely did not show her tummy. Her hijab matched the purple embroidery and was fastened with a jeweled clip. Not an inch of skin showed other than her hands and her face. I hugged her, and she hugged me back warmly, and then pushed me away gently to look at my outfit. I needn’t have worried.
“How Bangali you look,” she exclaimed. “And how beautiful.” I heaved a sigh of relief because my barely-there blouse had just been approved by the boss herself, the mother of the bride.
She continued, “Now, let go your anchal.” Leaning forward, she unclasped my hand, and the anchal fell away from my shoulders and swung free.
Abeer Hoque is a Nigerian born Bangladeshi American writer and photographer. Her memoir Olive Witch (Harper 360) was released in 2017 in the U.S., and The Lovers and the Leavers (HarperCollins India) is her book of interleaved stories, poems, and photographs. See more at olivewitch.com.