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Sacred Ornas and Secret Longings

Photo from Mikey Leung.ca

The orna's slim fabric casts a net of symbolism and serves as a democratic garment -- for a certain class of people.

The orna is a girl’s best friend in Bangladesh. At first glance it might be difficult to imagine why. An orna, after all, is just an extra wide scarf, no matter what fabric composes it, no matter how much embroidery scrolls across it, and no matter how well it co-ordinates with one’s salwar kameez (trouser and tunic set).

The primary function of the orna is to cover one’s bosom. The correct way of wearing the orna is to drape both ends over your shoulder blades so that it hangs in a broad curve over the chest area; this method may require a safety pin at both shoulders. Wearing the orna like a bishop wears his stole, around the neck with each end stopping short above each knee, is a less traditional, but still acceptable, approach.

What must be remembered about the orna is what it signifies. Covering one’s bosom (as well other bits and pieces) is important in Bangladesh. Salwars elaborate the design along the bottom with extra expanses of artfully pleated fabric. Kameezes can be knee-length. The curious sari simultaneously skims and drapes over one’s curves. Primarily, ornas exist for religious reasons. A translation of the Holy Qur’an sets out the following guidelines:

And say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts and do not display their ornaments except what appears thereof, and let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms, and not display their ornaments except to their husbands or their fathers…[24.31]

The display of one’s ornaments is not limited to husbands and fathers only, but the idea is clear. The orna and its associates (like the Indian dupatta) exist for modesty’s sake, and according to the Qur’an, modesty is next to godliness.

The street interpretation of this tenet is slightly more relaxed. Nishat, a colleague, gives the reasons for wearing the orna as cultural. Wearing the orna is a handed-down custom that has its dusty origins in religion, but continues through habit.

The importance of the orna in Bangladesh is signified by its ubiquity. A democratic garment, the orna is worn in some form regardless of age or class. An early morning stroll through the streets of Dhanmondi will introduce spectators to a veritable showcase of ornas.

Female athletes cross the orna over the bosom at a diagonal and knot it round their waists so it won’t slip off whilst jogging. School girls in white-and-grey uniforms wear theirs in a similar way. Alternately they have it crossed over their chests and pinned to their hair, so they resemble flocks of little postulants, or in a neat ‘V’ over their starched chests, like a Girl Guide’s badgeless gilet, with the point tucked into their waistbands.

The girls who work at the nearby beauty factory find it easier to wax and shampoo clients on the production line with their ornas fastened over one shoulder. Classy broads who sink into the back seats of chauffeured, air-conditioned cars have the fanciest type of ornas, concocted of silk and sequins, and fling them carelessly over exfoliated shoulders, where they mingle with dangling gold earrings and straight jet hair.

For such women, how they wear their orna is an art, as is the whole of their toilette and habillement. Their easy elegance with the garment mocks the meager efforts of the female bideshi (foreigner). Shanti, a bideshi friend, discovered this when a “hard-core New Delhi Indian” colleague of hers guessed that she didn’t wear an orna at home. How could he tell? Through her awkward need to constantly rearrange it, he explained. No self-respecting South Asian woman touches her orna after putting it on each morning. Her nativeness acts as a magnet to keep it perfectly in place.

As an outsider to the orna, the female bideshi uses and abuses it. She might wear it as an expression of respect but underestimate its significance, apply it to her brow to wipe away the sweat of Bengal, or to dry her hands after washing, or as a bedspread or wrap-around skirt in the privacy of her home. My flatmate, Deepak, once used a borrowed orna as a mask while removing a smelly family of dead birds from our range hood -- and we, the women of the house, let him. Another friend incurred the wrath of a Bangladeshi gentleman when she picked up a dozen bottles from the foreigners-only grog shop and wrapped them in some old ornas to transport them safely home.

In Bangladesh, many deshi female friends question the bideshi choice to wear the orna. It is not necessary for us, they say, and perhaps they too secretly think we can’t carry it off. This is not quite accurate. Bideshi women may have more freedom to go ornaless, but they still encounter the same perception of themselves as women, and all the inferiority that signifies in Bangladesh. Since they also bear the cultural stereotype of being famous for not covering up, bideshi women might just as well keep their ornas close.

Without the orna, one feels naked. This would be a feeling amongst deshi (local) women that translates easily to the bideshi. Reports of female friends now returned to Australia demonstrate an increase in scarf collecting and wearing, not exactly in the fashion of women in Bangladesh, but still for their reassuring presence around the neck.

The orna’s net of symbolism is cast in public and private spaces. Bangladeshi women wear their kit running errands around scorching city streets, and leave it on when cooking over fierce gas burners or tending to their husbands and families in the home. I asked another friend, Runia, when do you take the orna off? Her answer encompassed variables like where you are, who is with you, and finally, how religious you are.

A popular female-only gym in Dhanmondi has individual dress shop-style changing cubicles in which women exchange their salwar kameez for exercise clothes. Tracksuit pants and t-shirts are as far as the deshi members will go in uncovering. No shorts or singlets are worn, but then, no ornas are, either.

What is known as ‘Death By Orna’ has occurred occasionally in Bangladeshi streets. Women’s ornas have become tangled in their own or passing rickshaws; some women are pulled off rickshaw seats and onto the streets, others are strangled.

Then there is the erotic orna, associated with the harem mentality. Women under cover carry their exclusiveness as an aphrodisiac. Each lover and husband is turned into a sultan when a woman exposes her body only for him. What fire burns under such an impenetrable, well-concealed breast? So many Harlequin romances have been based on this notion. The orna can give women the opportunity to yield their sexual power. Or in terms of the prostitutes one sees being fondled out in the open (but still under cover of the orna) by security guards in the dead of Dhaka nights, they are more likely to be exploited by it.

Men are everywhere in Bangladesh and can parade the streets in various states of attire. Men can be fully suited, in dress shirt and trousers, in t-shirt and jeans, in punjabi and tupi, or topless with a lungi at full-length or folded up loin cloth style. Women can wear the orna, salwar kameez, sari, conceal their hair with a rumal, their face with a hijab, or don the burka. Baby boys toddle the streets dressed in nothing but a few lengths of string and a tabiz (holy amulet), whereas their equally poor sisters are clothed as fully as possible. These liberties of dress are the male street interpretation of a Qu’ran text similar to the one directed at women:

Say to the believing men that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts; that is purer for them; surely Allah is Aware of what they do [24.30].

As a man in Bangladesh, wearing short trousers won’t have you cast out. Rather, shorts are considered infantile and you’ll get ribbed by your friends if you’re a local, and giggled at perhaps a bit more discreetly if you’re a bideshi. It’s hard to look dignified if your legs are milk-white and hirsute, after all.

Conversely, a woman wearing shorts, or a short skirt -- bideshi or deshi -- will always be stared at, talked about, and openly harassed.

I needed to find a man to explain to me why men are allowed more freedom of apparel than women. Dr Apurba, a colleague, allows that it happens just because culture in Bangladesh is the way it is. Women because they’re women, must have ornas -- men because they’re men, have more choices. It also has to do with male dominance and physical structure. Men cover up less because they have less to cover up.

Indeed, ornas are worn everywhere in Bangladesh. Except in my bedroom, where I am sitting at my desk wearing a sleeveless t-shirt and a cotton skirt down to my knees. My curtains are drawn and my window is open. On one of the nearby rooftops, four slick young men wearing jeans and shirts are sitting, smoking cigarettes and surveying their princedom.

After watching them for a while, I notice movement at a window two floors down. A young women in full salwar kameez and bright yellow orna holds her baby up to take in the cool breeze. It would be difficult for her to feel the breeze. From my interior vantage point, the distance between the men and the woman is slight. She is a just few floors beneath. Then again, they are standing with floors and ceilings between them; they cannot see each other.


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