I’m fond of the kurta — the name given to the generic South Asian dress. It is comfortable, beautiful and fashionable. When I arrived at NYU Abu Dhabi last year, I came across a few non-South Asians, mostly Westerners, wearing it and it left me largely unbothered. This year however, I have become more and more uncomfortable seeing non-South Asians wearing the kurta around campus.
My discomfort primarily stems from the fact that the kurta is part of an identity and the few Westerners that wear it have the privilege to integrate it into their own. If a brown person like myself tries to integrate symbols from other cultures into his or her own identity, he will be met with immense backlash. My identity has been chosen for me since birth, by my parents and by my exposure to Western culture, and I must constantly struggle to find a balance between both. An average white U.S. American might struggle with their identity in a different way but they still have enough space to maneuver those boundaries without being demeaned or dismissed. When others wear the kurta, it limits what I can or cannot do with my own culture since part of it is being modified by someone else who does not come from the same background.
The colonial era left deep scars across the Subcontinent. The British used their power and influence to create a hierarchy that, in some sense, still persists to this day. When cultural symbols like the kurta are taken up by someone from the West, it plays into the idea that approval to celebrate and revel in culture must be sought from someone higher on the social ladder. This is not to say that people who wear the kurta on campus do it to deliberately reinforce the structure of power left by the British. But to someone who grew up in South Asia, the hijacking of culture reminds me of the need for approval because of feelings of inferiority, inferiority that comes from being told that a culture is not civilized or remarkable.
The kurta is also one of the few cultural symbols that have remained intact throughout the prolonged onslaught of Western culture on South Asia. Cultures evolve and change and influence from the West isn’t necessarily problematic. But when influence translates to people abandoning their own culture for another they deem to be cooler, then its not just a matter of organic cultural growth, it’s a take over.
When I wear a kurta, I wear it because its comfortable and because it is how I, as a middle class Pakistani, remind myself that I’m still deeply connected to my own culture. It represents not a cultural battle, but a shifting of margins between how Western I am and how much of my identity is South Asian. This is the consciousness of the middle to upper middle class South Asia. Brought up in a class of society where English is preferred over Hindi, Urdu or any other regional language, every middle class teenager either pretends to be a U.S. American in a society that doesn’t know what that is or be desi, traditional South Asian, and face social backlash for being backward.
The kurta is a simple piece of cloth. What it represents though is a connection between South Asians from all classes. It represents the love for a culture which has become uncool because of Western influence. Cultural appropriation would not be a problem if we lived in an ideal world but it becomes problematic when cultural appropriation in the 21st century resembles forms of oppression in the past.
Muhammad Usman is the deputy opinion editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.