Lungi wars and the battle for culture

A Wallah in traditional lungi

A Wallah in traditional lungi

I’ve written many times on the blog about my fear of the encroachment of the West on Asia – Bangladesh in particular. I have never believed that I came to Bangladesh to ‘help the poor’. I always knew Bangladesh would help me more.

Seven years later I still believe that and I am grateful for the many blessings this country and its people have given me.

So I hate it when I see the greed, selfishness and pride of the West becoming virtues to be obtained by the rising middle class here. Recently, the Press have been following  semi-‘amusing’ story of a particularly affluent area of Dhaka – Baridahara – having banned Rickshaw wallahs from wearing lungis. Lungis are a traditional dress worn by working men and most Bangladeshi men of any class will wear them in the comfort of their own home. For men, lungis are the single item of clothing that best typifies the national dress. But affluent and ‘West-influenced’ Baridhara feels such clothing is not decent. Only trousers will do.

Personally, I’ve never wanted to wear a lungi – I’m too British for it and find it looks way too much like a skirt to cope with. Sorry! Nevertheless, after reading how Rickshaw wallahs could no longer ply their honest trade in this area for the sake of ‘decency’ I was appalled and tempted to play the ‘white shahib’ card by buying and wearing a lungi and marching straight to Baridhara to see if the guards would dare refuse my entry. I’d probably get in, to be honest so I’m not sure how effective such a protest would have been.

Thankfully, I got beaten to it by the people who would do it much better themselves – the Bangladeshi youth.

An excellent blog – Alal o Dulal – ran this story last week. Have a quick read now:

Dhaka’s “tristate area”

I couldn’t support this movement more than I do. With Islamic fundamentalists attacking the very nature of what it means to be a Bangladeshi from one side and the West continuing to beat the message of “West is Best” on the other side, I truly do fear that all I believe to be good about this country will disappear over the next few decades. But I can’t do anything about it – it is not my country and not my place. All I can do is observe and write about what I observe; and really that is more for the benefit of Westerners than for my Bangladeshi readers.

So I am pleased to see young men and women standing up for their rights and for their culture. May it continue and may they be successful. Without my help, of course, as it should be.

Joy Bangla.

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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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16 Responses to Lungi wars and the battle for culture

  1. Tracy B says:

    I obviously have very little understanding of some of the issues you talk about and therefore am unable to comment on those. And I agree that one culture imposing its culture on another is unacceptable. This said, I sometimes feel that when you talk about “the West” as greedy, selfish and proud, and correct me if I’m wrong but this is how I read it, this comes across as a sweeping statement which encompasses every man, woman and child in one geographic area. And while I’m sad to recognise those characteristics in myself at times, I’d be gutted if this defined me simply because I lived in the UK and therefore am ‘western’. I would say I know many, many people who have never left “the West” who are not perfect but demonstrate huge amounts of generosity, kindness, community spirit, selflessness etc. and who would seek to fight selfishness, greed and pride (and not just from a religious perspective either) . It comes across to me as a bit ‘all or nothing’, and I’m not sure you can lump however many billion people together into 3 negative characteristics? And whilst we could say that materialism (by which I mean seeking fulfillment through money and material possessions) has been far more influential in the West, I would find it hard to believe that there was no greed, selfishness or pride in non-western countries before the West had some level of interaction with them – I think these are qualities of our human nature and therefore will be wherever humans are, but I do think they will be given ascendancy or even cultivated more in different societies depending on the kind of lifestyle/values that society promotes. I suppose I feel that my country has huge faults and things I’m really not proud of (pretty much like myself too) – but also that it is my home, I have nowhere else and that ,on today of all days, I would argue that there is beauty, joy, compassion, kindness, wonder, courage and all kinds of other noble qualities still to be found on this island, even with all of its imperfections, mistakes and ugly sides.

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    • Hi Tracy. Sorry I’ve taken a long time to reply to this comment. I’ve thought about it a great deal, started replying once and even considered writing a response as a post instead! I hope you take all that as an indication of how important I feel your comment was and the respect with which I wanted to respond. In the end, I’ve gone back to just replying here but this is largely because of recent events in Bangladesh which force me to be thinking of other things too much right now. The good news for you is that this will be much more brief than it could have been…

      First of all, you of course have a very valid point that these comments I make of the West are ‘sweeping statements’ and are not intended to be aimed at individuals. But then, by definition, ‘West’ has to be a generalisation doesn’t it? In fact, it is the desire to avoid judging individuals that I use the term deliberately. It is a generalisation. But that does not mean it is not true. Generalisations are so called because – generally – they are true. If not, then we shouldn’t use them at all – they are just untruths. But would you rather I attack individuals? As my post about Bankers shows, even those earning stupidly vast amounts of money have their supporters who give ‘true’ reasons for why they are morally in the right! If we’re not careful then we find we can’t point the finger at anyone. Maybe I shouldn’t point any fingers? No. Sorry – not while people around the world are starving and bankers continue to sit on billions. I just can’t do that.

      It was interesting that you said “on today of all days” referring, at the time I presume, to St George’s Day. But I didn’t make this accusation at Britain. I made it at the West. I think the problem is that you talk in terms of ‘I’ a great deal and this I feel is the biggest problem with the West. Individualism has, in our generation, given over to complete hedonism with no one having any right to judge another. I don’t believe this to be a true philosophy and certainly isn’t one I can live with. The fact is, Tracy, the West IS greedy, selfish and proud. While it is true that Asian countries can be guilty of this too, the collectivistic nature of Asia means that, for the common person at least, these attitudes are no the defining ones. I’m sorry, but they ARE the defining ones of the West. As this post points out, when Bangladeshi start to become more like Westerners (and Baridhara people certainly fall into that camp) then the same greedy and selfish, haughty attitudes start to be seen very clearly. You are right to say that selfish attitudes are part of human nature but you are not accounting for the fact that the West is built upon subjecting most of the rest of the world to slavery for centuries to build our wealth. Westerners sit in a privileged position and have a tendency to take that for granted – if not a ‘God-given right’.

      But my final point in all of this is, I think, very important. You may feel insulted as a ‘westerner’ about the comments and accusations I make, but perhaps you are forgetting that I too am a Westerner – and a British one at that! When I make these accusations I make them at myself just as much. You must see that in almost every post I write. I certainly made that a concluding point to one of my recent posts. So I don’t sit in judgement. I stand in the dock.

      And I too have nowhere else to go.

      Like

  2. Rinth says:

    Why do they need rickshaws in that area anyway? Don’t they have cars? Obviously it’s more comfortable riding a bike wearing lungi/dress/skirt than pants, that’s why they have special shorts just for biking. If they can’t accept that then let them buy and pull their own rickshaws… in pants! Leave the poor rickshaw-wallahs alone!

    Like

    • Well you’d be surrpised how many use rickshaws actually. I’ve been a few times and always used them (but then I am ‘gorib lok’ so no surprise!) and there are lots there. You are right in your points Rinth but, alas, it will always be the poor wallahs who will give in. Protests are something only the middle class and wealthy can afford. The Wallahs will do whatever they need to so they earn the taka. Baridhara residents pay too well…

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  3. Eliel Murmu says:

    Enjoyed reading the article. You have mentioned some thing about middle class people above about adopting western cultural, just to add with that to me most complected class of people are this middle class people.

    Like

  4. renxkyoko says:

    It’s not of course okay to suppress culture, especially something as innocous as wearing a lungi. But I don’t think Westerners are the ones who want to suppress it…. more often than not, it’s a group of their countrymen who do, the snobbish ones who think lungis aren’t ” cool” and are ashamed their countrymen still wear that.
    Some cultural practices however may qualify as one westerners wish shouldn’t be practiced anymore at this day and age. For example, in Africa some group of Africans practice female circumcision, and in Muslim countries, death for the woman who allegedly commits adulyery, or worse, gets killed because she was raped.

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    • Westerners aren’t doing it directly but there is no real reason why Bangladeshis should consider the lungi ‘indecent’. The only reason they do is because Western dress is seen as the ‘proper’ and professional dress. This is an overthrow from colonial days I think but it is making a bigger and bigger impact over here. The message is clear: If it is Western then it is good. If it is Bengali then it is bad. In this way it IS the West that is controlling this – but from a distance via invisible ‘strings’.

      I do agree with you about some practices which I don’t want to see practised any more than you do. However, we have to be careful even then not to make things much worse. As Gandhi made clear to the British, it is not for foreigners to tell us how to run our own country or to solve our problems. The best people to remove these cultural practises are the people themselves.

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      • renxkyoko says:

        I totally agree. Each to his her own. If it’s in their culture not to allow females to go to school, so be it. It’s wrong for the Americans to build schools for these Afhgan girls. They want their society to be that way. Foreigners have no right to force them to change that. Their culture has survived for thousands of years, after all.

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        • No we can’t force anything on other nations, you are right. I do think it is appropriate to take sanctioning action however. If we don’t approve of how a nation treats its own people, then it is our right to say “we will not trade with you or help in you time of need until you change this”. Then we merely state that such behaviour goes against our own culture and we want nothing to do with it. Alas, our own Western societies, fuelled by greed, are all too often prepared to ‘turn a blind eye’ when it so suits them…

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  5. I have many friends who where Lungi’s. In my neighbourhood some affluent Bangladeshi restaurant owners often are seen wear a lungi. Even at University, some British born Bangladeshi would often relax and chill in their own environments wearing the lungi.

    I’ve never given it much thought to be honest, well until now. I support the lungi too.

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