Minipost 11a – Bangladeshi Fashion – part II


So, last week I talked a little about the kind of fashion women wear in Bangladesh and why. The young, unmarried wear shalwar kameezes and the married, older women wear saris. Working women – particularly in the garment and hospital area will often be found wearing shalwar kameezes too as they are more practical. But the sari is elegant and denotes status. This is a key factor as no one wears a sari to keep cool!

But the downside to saris and the ornas (long fine scarves) that have to be worn with the shalwar kameeze is that many of the village women cook on earth ovens called chulas. Unfortunately, these clothes easily catch the flames and then burn very quickly.

Getting accurate statistics for Bangladesh is difficult but one survey carried out in 2004 found that there were over 187,000 burn accidents in the year and I see no evidence of this diminishing. More than 90% of all burn accidents happen to women in the kitchen area. Though most will survive the accident, those that don’t often suffer a horrible death and those that do can be badly disfigured.

At LAMB burn victims are seen regularly and, I am told, it is not a pretty sight. A hospital set in rural Bangladesh, dealing with the very poorest, we often see the very worst cases. The survival rate for women is not good after around 30% or so body coverage and I am glad I do not get to see these cases on the whole. My little corner of LAMB is the school and I am content to live there when I hear of some of the cases that come through the gates to the hospital part.

So, if the fashion for women in Bangladesh is not especially practical for most and not very cool to wear – why do women wear these things? Well, I would not try to suppose I know – being a man and not being a Bangladeshi. But I have made some observations about what I see advertised as ‘beautiful’ in Bangladesh and in Dhaka, the capital, especially, and I will share some of these thoughts next week.


About D K Powell

British freelance journalist, author, writer, editor, musician, educational consultant. I lived with Wifey, Thing I (daughter) & Thing II (son) in Bangladesh for 5-6 years working for an NGO called LAMB. Wifey led the Hospital Rehab department and I used to teach O levels at the school before going full-time as a freelance writer in 2013. Now we're back in the UK learning how to be British again. When not writing or editing, I'm busy trying to complete a Masters degree in Intercultural relations in Asian Contexts and reading way too many books at once. I also drink tea - lots of it.
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23 Responses to Minipost 11a – Bangladeshi Fashion – part II

  1. Pingback: Minipost 17 – The ways people get here baffle me… | kenthinksaloud

  2. Pingback: Minipost 11b – Bangladeshi Fashion – part III | kenthinksaloud

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  4. sarsm says:

    That’s a huge number of women being burned…

    I think the Sari’s look beautiful, but I always wondered how women coped with them in the heat. I had never thought of them being dangerous too.


    • They are beautiful and elegant with it too. For me, even the poorest woman in a sari looks amazing. But yes, the reality is that in the typical rural setting, they have a danger that shouldn’t be ignored.


  5. Nakib says:

    The part about sari & shalwar kameez getting mixed due to the coexistence of Hinduism & Islam is true to the core. What you didn’t mention here is this: all Bangladeshis (in fact all Bengalis) come from Hindu origins. We are converts from Hinduism. As a matter of fact, according to the Hindu folklore there are areas of Bangladesh (I think Sylhet but not really sure) that are of religious significance (I am not learned in the Hindu scriptures so I can’t say much). All Bengalis are from a race of short,stocky people called the Dravidians. These people are still extant in remote islands like Sri Lanka but almost wiped out in Bangladesh because of the Pakistan-India-Bangladesh mixture. Our ancestors were converted to Islam by saints & sufis from Persia (modern-day Iran) who came to the fertile, disaster-prone land during the Golden Age of Muslim Rule. Unlike in Malaysia & Indonesia, where the people were influenced mainly by the behavior of Muslim traders, here in Bangladesh the people were impressed by the mysticism of the Sufis and their amazing culture.This is why the culture in Bangladesh is a rooted mixture of Muslim Sufism & Hinduism. One look at the city or the villages during public occasions like Pohela Baishakh(1st day of Bengali New Year) or International Mother Language Day is enough to tell you that the culture is wittingly mixed with Hinduism in the Muslim-majority country.
    Although this is off-topic I should also mention this: the Qur’an was first translated into Bengali by a Hindu because Bengali was, till the 1950s, the language of the poor & the Hindus. So you can see everything in this country is of mixed origins. And mingle this with the British influence during the British Raj. The result is a concoction of all cultures, with English regarded as the aristocratic language (the very reason why most middle-class send their children to British schools, for example:me) at the same time. And hence during the 27 years of Pakistani rule the Pakistani leaders always mentioned that people of this region could never be completely ‘Muslimified’. And hence came about our independence to form a secular constitution.


    • Ruth Subash says:

      Hi Nakib, my husband is South Indian and Indians from the far South – Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka are Dravidians as well.


    • Thank you for supplying that information Nakib for those who are interested to know more. Yes, you are quite right, the Hindus were in the Indian subcontinent first and Muslims here are from original converts from the sufis. Of course, you can argue that you can go further back and claim Indians are all from Buddhist blood as they were here before the Hindus!

      Bangladesh is often claimed as the great victory of Islam as there was very little bloodshed when the Muslims came because of the peaceful work of the sufis first. It was the lower class Hindus who were predominantly attracted to the religion which stressed equality before Allah and this mean’t their status would be raised. This made them more receptive to the message.

      You were also right to mention the British period and the influence there of course is seen in many ways – not just with the language. Middle class men wearing shirts and ties came from the British influence and you will find cutlery in every restaurant in Dhaka, regardless of whether you use them or not! English is not just the language of the middle class though. We work with the very poorest at LAMB and any child that goes to school (as all are supposedly to these days – though, sadly it is still not always the case) will learn English. Even those in the ‘grams’ who consider themselves to have no English at all use a huge number of English words that they have no idea are English! Many here don’t even know that you have a Bangla word for ‘Bottle’, ‘chair’, table and so on! This is very fortunate for Brits like me who are so awful at learning languages. Bangla is made much easier by the fact that a conversation with even the poorest person will often feature a smattering of English words to help us figure out what is being said!

      Thanks for your knowledgeable insight Bhai! 🙂


      • Ruth Subash says:

        I always thought Hinduism came before Buddhism. Hinduism is thought of as one of the oldest religions in the world. Buddhism came from the Buddha who died about 2400 BC but it is difficult to date Hinduism as there is no founder and I suppose the word Hindu and Hinduism became common usage to describe and put a name to indigenous Vedic Indian religion which dates back to 5500 BC.


        • Well, it is very difficult to ascertain anything in Bengal before the 4th century AD. However, the first great empire in the region was the Mauryan Empire (established by Asoka) and it was during this time (320-180 BC) Buddhism arrived in Bengal.

          During the Gupta age (this is the 4th Century AD part) both Brahmanism and Buddhism were practised and tolerated. But it was with Shashanka (600-625 AD) that Hinduism found its champion and Buddhist were, allegedly, persecuted. The Pala dynasty followed and was Buddhist but then the Sena dynasty from 1098 – 1204 AD was Brahmanas (priests) and then Ksatriyas (warriors) later on.

          This confused ‘battle of religions’ then became all the more difficult when Khalji – a Muslim ruler – advanced into Bengal and wiped out the Senas. From then on, the Buddhists never got a look in again and tussles between Hindus and Muslims continued on until the arrival of the British – building forts in 1620.

          So, whilst some form of Hinduism was undoubtedly around long before, in terms of Empires and organised beliefs of people, it is fair to say that the Buddhists got there first!


  6. Rinth says:

    Well it’s not like they have any options. “Western fashion” for girls wouldn’t work in rural areas. I mean there are still some areas in Dhaka where you get stared at if you wear western clothes… so I can’t imagine how it would be in the rural areas. It’s weird though… the salwar kameez is traditional Muslim clothing, but the saree isn’t… it comes from India and most probably the Hindu religion… and Bangladesh’s culture somehow just got stuck in between.

    But in the end it all has to do with knowledge… so it’s important to educate these women in kitchen safety. If they understand the cause, they can try to prevent the damage from happening.


    • Indeed Rinth – some really good points there. Dhaka is a real smelting pot of ideas (something I’ll allude to next week I suspect) and you do get very ‘unusual’ behaviour and dress there in certain points. I HAVE seen a girl in very short shorts walk into a shop in Banani before today. I didn’t know where to put my face!

      Your point about the Muslim and Indian mix is a very good one and a point I was sharing with a friend, new to Bangladesh, just today! It comes from the days before 1947 when Bengal was a huge area of India with both Muslims and Hindus living there. It was split into West Bengal and East Bengal and it was the latter that became East Pakistan after Independence and then Bangladeshi. Although the Hindus moved to one side and the Muslims moved to the other, a 10% mix if each remained still so we have about 15 million Hindus in Bangladesh today. But they had lived side-by-side for centuries so the mix of traditions, clothes, words and food has been part of the culture a very long time.Although it is a little off the subject, the way Islam is practised in Bangladesh is also influenced by non-Muslim cultures, probably for the same reasons.

      Your final point is absolutely key and something LAMB has been doing for 30 years – taking healthcare to the villages and educating them in all kinds of healthcare. From child-rearing to personal hygiene to nutrition to safety in the kitchen area – education really is LIFE here. There is no doubt such education schemes are reducing the risk – but places like LAMB are few and far between and we continue to see the victims here. There is a long road to travel yet.

      Thank you so much Rinth for your thought-provoking comment. 🙂


      • Rinth says:

        My pleasure. It’s really nice to read what you do over there. Bangladesh definitely needs more outside perspective… and unfortunately many people living in the big cities or coming abroad forget about the rural areas and how the development of Bangladesh needs to start there. You can’t just forget about those areas and point out how Dhaka is improving… it’s the capital but it isn’t the whole nation.

        It’s not often you come across people who are so open minded and can adjust to any circumstances. Best of luck with your work and I’m looking forward to reading more about your experiences and achievements :)!


        • Thank you Rinth – that means a lot to hear from you 🙂

          I think there are a lot of people who do care about the rural areas and want to see quality of life improved for all but it is a slow process and a long haul to see improvement. It IS happening though – which is something to be excited about and be very grateful its taking place!


  7. Ruth Subash says:

    Are all burn victims victims of their clothes setting on fire by accident when cooking? In India many women are burned in the kitchen deliberately by her in-laws family and this is due to dowry disputes and mainly happens in rural area. The family pour kerosine on the new bride and set her alight but claim it was cooking accident.


    • This happens a lot in Bangladeshi too Ruth, but not what I am talking about here. These stats (for interest only – as I say it is difficult to get hold of accurate stats) indicate accidental fires rather than deliberate ones. Usually the hem of the sari or the tip of the orna just catches the fire as they move and then up in flames they go 😦


      • Ruth Subash says:

        I shall be careful if and when we move as we would cook with a gas hob! I am clutsy enough that it could happen. I am not good with the scarf/dupita you wear with salwars so I tend to take it off at home or tie it at the back to keep it in one place! I do love wearing salwars but saris not so much as I need help putting it on properly!


        • lol like most ‘bideshi’ women you will need help from local female friends to get the sari on initially. Vik is pretty good at doing it herself these days so it is possible to get used to it. I’m glad I don’t have to though!


  8. Kirsty says:

    I really enjoy these posts! Especially as I have been looking into UK fashion magazines, advertising and things like that for new concepts for pieces. Interesting to see a little bit into how fashion is viewed in other cultures as well. Looking forward to the next one 🙂


    • Thanks Kirsty – good to hear from you 🙂 Yep, the fashion here is very different though some of the main motivations remain much the same between cultures – but I will talk more about that in next week’s minipost!


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