Cultural (in)sensitivity: wearing a salwar kameez

One of my friends is marrying a Pakistani-Australian Muslim man in a couple of weeks. I’m not completely clear on all the different events that occur as part of an Islamic wedding (this is the first I’ll attend) but I know that I don’t go to the actual wedding ceremony itself. I do, however, go to the big celebratory Valima dinner after the ceremony as well as to the women-only Mehndi event few days before the ceremony.

Apparently, at the mehndi, my friend will get henna tattoos.  Source:
At the mehndi, my friend, the bride, will get henna tattoos.

For both these events we’ve (me and other non-Muslim friends of the bride) been told that while it’d be lovely if we wore traditional dress, it is no means expected; we’re equally welcome to wear “colourful modest/conservative clothing.” Apparently, this is a trickier ask than I realised – all my clothing seems to be grey, short and tight.

Anyway, my friends and I have decided that we’d like to wear the traditional Pakistani women’s dress the salwar (or shalwar) kameez:

Definitely not grey. Source:
Definitely not grey.
Definitely modest. Source:
Definitely modest (to me, anyway).

But this decision has made me think about being culturally sensitive as opposed to being part of a Great White Tradition of being culturally insensitive.

On one hand, I feel like wearing the salwar kameez is a way of demonstrating respect, a way of honouring a culture and a religion that I know very little about. On the other hand, precisely because I know so little about this culture and this religion, it’s like I’m taking the easiest and prettiest route of appearing “sensitive” by wearing their clothes.

My feeling that I might be being insensitive is made worse, moreover, when you consider that Western culture—thanks largely to our history of colonialism—is notorious for cultural appropriation. While active British Empire-style colonialism is a thing of the past, the West culturally appropriating aspects of other cultures is still very much a thing of the “now” – just look at the music video of any young, white popstar:

The classical kimono is known for its tit-window. Source: 

Source: some casual blaxploitation. Source:

Cultural appropriation isn’t just for popstars! Just look at your local Victoria’s Secret parade. Source:

While many have tried to justify the taking and using aspects of another culture in terms of cultural “appreciation”, this argument doesn’t hold up. That’s because far more often than not, those aspects that are taken are misused, decontextualised and stripped of traditional meaning (see above: kimono tit-window). The use of another culture’s symbols also typically  reflects a serious power imbalance. As hiukchiu so excellently explains:

It is an unequal exchange where a dominant Western culture presses itself onto cultures and taking away symbols, which are deemed precious to that minority culture.

Moreover, dressing based on the clothing and symbols of another culture is laden with orientalism – a term developed by cultural theorist and postcolonial scholar Edward Said (pronounced “say-eed” not “sed”) to describe how the West views and represents the East (here, the “East” encompasses Asia, North Africa and the Middle East – anything “Other” to the West, essentially). What Said argues is that the West is  guilty of perpetually representing the “Orient” in such a way that “Oriental” culture and peoples are positioned as weak, anarchic, and feminine, while the West is positioned as strong, rational, and masculine. A clear power imbalance is thus used to justify Western cultural imperialism and domination over the East; those orientals! They’re so irrational! What would they know if we just “borrowed” some of their culture?

The Ancient Egyptians were known to have a penchant for grills.
(The Ancient Egyptians were known to have a penchant for grills.)

I know I’ve drifted away from my salwar kameez dilemma a bit, but understanding cultural appropriation and orientalism is useful for understanding my hesitation about wearing the salwar; the last thing I want to do is to be playing “dress ups” in another culture. Indeed, I’m reminded of the “Xanadu” themed ball in Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin where the invites have “a gold-and-cerulean border of Arabic writing. Did anyone understand such writing? No, but it looked just lovely” (409). After the event, Iris, the protagonist writes:

“Last night I dreamt I was wearing my costume from the Xanadu ball. I was supposed to be an Abyssinian maiden – the damsel with the dulcimer. It was green satin, that costume: a little bolero jacket with gold spangle trim, showing a lot of cleavage and midriff; green satin undershorts, translucent pantaloons. Lots of fake gold coins, worn as necklaces and looped over the forehead. A small, jaunty turban with a crescent pin. A nose vail. Some tawdry circus designer’s idea of the East” (404).

Essentially, this: Marilyn Monroe in the 1958 film "Cleopatra" Source:
Essentially, this: Marilyn Monroe in the 1958 film “Cleopatra” Source:

I know I’m not (hopefully) being that bad. I’m trying my hardest not to be: I’ve got advice and feedback from the groom about the salwars I wanted to buy (yes, I want two – one for the Mehndi and one for the Valima dinner. Also, an aside, Gumtree is legit for salwar shopping). Also, I’m wearing said salwars to contextualised events – I’m not wearing them to problematic “Cultures of the World” dress up party or similar. And I’m wearing them precisely so I do respect a culture, rather than imposing my Western-style idea of what a dress worn to a wedding should look like.

I guess I’m trying to say that I’m going in with the best of intentions. I just hope that I’m not actually a deeply hypocritical white-girl, decrying cultural appropriation while she wears her salwar kameez backwards or something.


2 thoughts on “Cultural (in)sensitivity: wearing a salwar kameez

  1. What a nice discussion. Assuming the wedding has been and gone, how did it all go? Did you all don a salwar kameez with ease?
    I don’t think curiosity and genuine intentions necessarily equate to cultural appropriation or insensitive “dress ups”. You were asked to share in the culture, to be a part of the celebration, not be an onlooker.
    N.B. I’m an Australian married to a Pakistani, we had wedding ceremonies both here and in Pakistan. And while in Pakistan I only wear salwar kameez.


    1. Thanks for your comment!
      The wedding went well! And I’d say that all of us who chose to wear salwar kameez did so with sensitivity and conscious reflection about our choices. My friend (the bride) now only wears salwar kameez when she visits her husband’s family (they’re based in Australia) – so I guess she handles the situation in a similar way to you.


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