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November 24, 2016

Why an Indian American Is Draping The Sari for Solidarity

Text by Wyanet Vaz

“When people look at me they have to see a different culture.”

#SareeNotSorry began as a teaching experiment in September 2015 by Indian American professor, Tanya Rawal. In a bid to dispel unreasonable prejudices against the minority community in America, her 300-plus posts on Instagram come peppered with images of herself in coloured cotton saris, most of which are donated by friends or belong to her mother. Usually photographed at the University of California, the most interesting  backdrop is a whiteboard with strong political messages like, ‘I don’t look like a terrorist’ or ‘What does it feel like to be a problem?’ By incorporating the sari in her daily life, Rawal tries to tackle the increasing hatred towards immigrants, “Most people praise the beauty of the sari. I can tell they feel uncomfortable with me, but the beauty of the sari makes them react kindly.”

As the campaign gains global recognition and garners a strong following, Rawal takes us through her journey of weaving politics in her pallu.

The challenge…
“For months, my mother and grandfather have been telling me to stop covering my head or wearing the sari. I tell them that this project is important to me now, more than ever, especially with the current political situation in the US. I just feel that the distress and worry of minorities will not go away if brown women change their clothes or their identity.”

Them vs us…
“As most coloured people in America know, we all look interchangeable. In a single day, a brown person can be accused of being an illegal from Mexico or a terrorist from Southwest Asia. The fear brown women face when they leave their home in either jeans and a T-shirt or a sari directly result from Donald Trump’s campaign platforms. To the young South and Southwest Asian women across the world: the personal choice to wear something that marks us as ‘other’ is political and the personal choice to wear something that marks as good minorities, willing to assimilate is also political. Make your choice. The only correct choice is the one that makes you comfortable. Before anything else, I urge women to make choices that allow them to feel safe.”

The boiling point…
“My goal is to raise awareness. The most interesting response to #SareeNotSorry comes from the people who say that the project is pointless, because Indians are ‘good’ immigrants. The goal of this project is to highlight the fact that for some skin colours, an immigrant is an immigrant. I was born in the United States, and yet I am regularly asked to identify my point of origin.”

First impressions…
“’Saris are so pretty’ is the most common reaction from colleagues and peers. It’s a nice comment, and I appreciate it. I just wonder if the politics of it all gets lost in the prettiness….”

A growing audience…
“I’m glad that this campaign has reached a global platform. A woman from Ireland reached out and told me about her group wearing saris in Cork. I have heard from people everywhere, it is so great to think of the sari as a transnational garment. My most fulfilling moment happened in Delhi. I was catching up with old friends, when someone walked up to me and asked if I was the sari professor from California. The support I get from people is inspiring.”

From the closet…
“The sari is integral to my wardrobe because my saris, blouses, and petticoats are put together with my jeans and T-shirts. So I can wake up and walk over to my closet and pick from a mixed bag. I don’t let my destination determine what I wear.”

Best buy…
“I have never bought a sari in the US! I usually wear my mother’s old saris. My favourite is a gulabi cotton one from FabIndia. It seems really plain, but reminds me of Sampat Pal Devi’s Gulabi Gang. I really respect the Uttar Pradesh organisation and their contribution to women’s empowerment in India.”

Personal style…
“Usually out of necessity I wrap the pallu around my neck like a scarf. I also tie a knot in the pallu so that it rests on my shoulder.”

First tryst with the sari…
“The first time I wore a sari was to high school. For my senior winter formal I wore a black sari with a tube top and beaded black choker.”

The sari is…
“Magnanimous and spontaneous.”

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