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Lungi on trial

The staying power of the lungi in Bangladesh has proven stronger than its retractors expected

Dhaka ― It is difficult to imagine anyone would be offended by the lungi. Considering the genocides, vandalism, terrorism and dirty politics that surround us on a daily basis, what possible crime could this most humble of garments, having served as the national attire for Bangladeshi men for as long as anyone can remember, have committed?

The lungi, after all, was and continues to be the most comfortable, convenient piece of clothing ever to be invented. Slip it on, tie and knot and you’re good to go. In the kind of hot weather that Bangladesh is known for, it provides plenty of ventilation, your own personal air conditioning system. Millions of men have been wearing it for occasions ranging from weddings to going to bed, a part of work and play, on a daily basis, for centuries. And it’s not just Bangladesh that has shown an inherent appreciation of the lungi ― many other countries in the sub-continent too have long bonded with the comforts of this airy, sarong-like garment, making it part of the cultural consciousness of various regions.
A rickshaw-puller in Dhaka dons the lungi, the traditional attire for Bangladeshi men. Rickshaw-pullers transport passengers in Dhaka. (The Daily Star)
A rickshaw-puller in Dhaka dons the lungi, the traditional attire for Bangladeshi men. Rickshaw-pullers transport passengers in Dhaka. (The Daily Star)

Early this year, however, a particular group of people ― namely the Baridhara Society, the homeowner’s association of the upscale residential neighborhood of Baridhara in Dhaka, home to diplomats and other affluent folks ― deemed the lungi “substandard,” subsequently banishing it from the environs of their posh community. “We just wanted the rickshaw-pullers to put on decent clothes,” said society president Firoz Hasan. The lungi then, for the residents of Baridhara, represents poverty, and poverty is something to be concealed, an embarrassment they would like to sweep as far under the carpet as possible.

And just like that, the national outfit became enemy No. 1.

Rickshaw-pullers were forced to pull on trousers; they said they had no choice ― it was a matter of saving their livelihoods. So what if trousers were more expensive? And what if they’re too hot and uncomfortable and difficult to pedal in? At least they keep up appearances. The instruction was enforced by Baridhara guards who began to turn away those who didn’t comply with it.

What this association didn’t expect was the soft spot that lungis occupy, even amid the trouser-wearing demographic, in Bangladeshi society. These were people who understood the simple fact that dictating what a person can and can’t wear is a clear infringement of a personal liberty, comparable to telling someone what religion they should adhere to ― no one should be able to take away that liberty at will.

The lungi was now in the headlines. Indeed, the ban brought about a surprising show of solidarity from those who didn’t even know they felt so strongly about it until that very moment. Over 10,000 people signed up for a lungi march through Baridhara protesting the ban, and although the actual number that showed up for the protest was much lower, the point was made.

Happily, their efforts were rewarded, and the ban now lifted (Dhaka residents are advised to attempt a rickshaw ride to Baridhara to confirm this). Bangladesh’s High Court has also recently directed the police administration to inform it regarding their steps against the people responsible for barring lungi-clad rickshaw-pullers from entering Baridhara. The court has also issued a rule upon the government to explain why it should not be directed to take legal action against the president and secretary of the society who allegedly issued the instructions.

Considering the particularly chaotic political climate in Bangladesh at present, the lungi issue might not seem deserving of priority. But the question is not about mere bottomwear ― it is about what the lungi represents, the kind of rights we won after long years of struggling for independence. So what do we have to learn from the lungi crisis of 2013? That Bangladeshis are a proud, resilient people, deeply attached to history and traditions, who ― like the lungi ― are not so easily repressed.

By Anika Hossain

(The Daily Star)
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