Between the Hijab and the Bikini

Yesterday’s New York Times has an op-ed by Roger Cohen titled Olympians in Hijab and Bikini. It features the below photograph of  Egyptian Doaa Elghobashy and German Kira Walkenhorst:

As I read the op-ed and the comments posted by readers, my mind kept drifting to the photograph of Anandi and the two foreign students.  The photograph shows all three women in their traditional attire.

It is not known whether the three women were requested to dress in their traditional attire when they sat for the photograph. Being medical students, they worked in labs and performed surgeries and this may have necessitated certain modifications to the above outfits in the interest of everyday practicality.

However, other considerations may have influenced their everyday choices as well. For example, research has uncovered how much thought Anandi had put into deciding how she should dress.

  • She could not wear the nine-yard sari which was the norm for her community because it did not provide sufficient protection from the cold.
  • She could not adopt the long dresses worn by Western women for fear of censure from her fellow Indians when news and photographs about her reached India. They might jump to the conclusion that she had converted to Christianity, and as a corollary to that, even banish her from the caste.
  • She was aware that her wearing Western attire might not sit well with some westerners. They might see her as being uppity in considering herself one of them or equal to them.

And so she hit upon a compromise: she continued to wear a sari, but she draped it in a slightly different style, one that was an approximation of the weather-appropriate attire of western women.

She was moving from a place where it was hot and humid year-round to one that had bitter cold weather half the year; and this was in a time before electricity, when the only source of heat was a fireplace that she had to learn to tend. She had no choice but to adapt.

Even so, her husband found reasons to criticize her decision. Although he was the driving force behind her pursuit of an education, he had not quite grasped the repercussions of that pursuit: that she would find herself in entirely new and uncharted situations, that she would have to make decisions on her own and, that he would have to trust her judgment.


Near the end of the op-ed, Cohen writes:

Who is to say which of the women is more conservative, more of a feminist or more liberated? We do not know.

Anandi did not have the luxury of worrying about labels such as conservative, feminist or liberated. Her priority was her education and to that end she needed to stay warm and healthy while participating in her Indian and American communities as seamlessly as possible.

I suspect the same is true of the Olympic athletes. They too may have chosen their attire based on practical (on the environmental as well as cultural planes) considerations. As one reader commented:

When the men’s beach volleyball team is dressed in t shirts and shorts, I don’t think one can chalk the women’s uniforms just to empowerment or practicality. There is equal parts of different strains of sexism that has gone into creating both of the uniforms on display in that photo.

The complex calculus makes Anandi as well as the athletes conservative, feminist and liberated — all at the same time.


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