Sorry, Sari Fans

08.05.1412:30 PM ET

India. It's Not Just a Fashion Statement.

Indian apparel is not just a pretty costume, Aleyamma Mathew argues. It's a custom and a cultural legacy with heavy political significance.​

It was Sunday morning, and I was walking to meet a friend for brunch on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. As I exited the subway, a young white woman slammed into me as she rushed up the stairs. She wore a flowing sari and carried a saffron shawl.

Thoughts tumbled through my mind: Who is she? Why is she dressed like this? That shawl – what does it mean to her?

Also, I couldn't help but notice that she was wearing the sari wrong.

The blouse didn’t match. The pleats were carelessly done. The pullu (the part that is draped over the shoulder) was too short in the back and sagged in the front. I thought of all my aunties, who, at every single Indian function I attended in my life, would escort me to the bathroom to pull, pick, pin and pleat my sari. There is a proper way to wear a sari. It requires instruction, repetition, assistance and apprenticeship. It is a thing of culture and legacy. Its material, its length, its folds, its design and borders—all tell the story of who you are, where you are from, and where you are going that day. It is knowledge handed down in a sacred transaction between mothers and daughters. It is a legacy.

I can’t say I was surprised to see a sari-clad millennial in downtown Manhattan. And I had no doubt that there was a story there. Perhaps she’d just returned from India and felt comfortable with the sari. Perhaps it had been a gift. Or perhaps she had just read The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and it opened her mind to the mysticism of the East and the sari was part of that new expansion.

At the same time, the scene stayed with me—probably because it underscores a far more serious issue: affluent westerners’ practice of adopting my native country’s fashions as spiritual accessories.

These days, such trendy mysticism comes with an increasingly heavy load of political baggage. Narendra Modi, the new Prime Minister of India elected May 16, 2014 in a landslide, is a leader in the Hindu fundamentalist party, a major and growing threat to the secular brand of the world’s largest democracy. Modi rose to power as head of the state of Gujarat, where riots broke out in 2002. Not only were ethnic and religious minorities, primarily Muslims, targeted but human rights reports show that the patterns of violence were pre-planned and organized. Women interviewed in the refugee camps shared unforgettable stories of sexual violence, rape, gang rape, stripping, and insertion of objects into their bodies. (Coincidently, Modi was on vacation during the riots and has denied any involvement, but many continue to view his silent absence as tacit approval.) 

What western trendsetters need to understand is that the Indian mysticism they embrace is increasingly bound up with a rising tide of Hindu fundamentalism that threatens to move India in dangerous directions—as was chillingly illustrated just this week with a series of anti-Muslim incidents. Footage emerged of a radical Hindu lawmaker trying to force food into the mouth of a Muslim caterer during the Ramadan period of fasting, and another politician questioned the national identity of an Indian Muslim tennis star, according to a July 26 Reuters news report. Throughout it all, Modi has remained silent, drawing criticism from many, including The Times of India, which reported: “The prime minister needs to come out strongly against such comments in order to reassure the minorities that their apprehensions about the intent of his regime are misplaced and to signal to these elements that it is not open season for minority-baiting. Silence on his part will only encourage such elements.”

In sum, the incense, the Om tattoos, the saffron (the color for India’s right-wing party) shawls—these are far more than harmless fashion accouterments. For ethnic and religious minorities from India, they are becoming terrifying reminders of a Hindu fundamentalism on the rise, of an India that does not have much room for them. 

Modi won the elections in India, in part, on a platform that promised vast economic development and a middle class prosperity, pointing to his legacy in Gujarat, where economic growth under his leadership was well above the national average. But history suggests reason to fear that such gains would benefit the few, not the many—that the nation may be increasingly split between Hindu haves and other have nots. Moreover, economic progress in India will depend on the active involvement of women. What Modi does to ensure all women’s safety and access to opportunity will be the true measure of his economic policies.

To the sari-clad millennial on Second Avenue: I hope your interest in India goes beyond mysticism and cultural accessorizing. If there is a deep appreciation for India, then I hope that you will extend yourself to ensure that India’s unique brand of secularism remains intact under this new leadership. Because while fashions come and go, Modi's impact will be enduring.

Aleyamma Mathew, a Ford Foundation Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project, has over 15 years of experience working on women’s, labor and immigrant rights issues, with a focus on low income, working families and women of color. Born in India, she now lives in Brooklyn, and is active on issues of concern to the South Asian community in the United States.