The word shameez derives in the usual roundabout way
of languages and contexts from the French “chemise” which means “shirt”. The
garment has had several avatars—in medieval Europe it was worn by both men and
women. Through its various castings and recastings, one thing remained constant
about the garment; it was worn immediately next to the skin, as the buffer
between the body and its garments.
As a Muslim woman growing up in the small town of Aligarh in north India, I lived with the reality that the shameez was an essential part of every woman’s wardrobe. These shameez were shaped like a sleeveless slip, usually made of light white fabric, and were worn at a length a little shorter than the knee—something of a petticoat for the upper body.
Despite the “barely-there” nature of the shameez, it was a garment that in its very delicacy was loaded with meaning. Its presence was a stamp of respectability, its absence was heavily remarked.
They would be made either at home, or as in our case, by
women who took in sewing at home, women who had known us from almost the moment
we were born and who did not require our measurements. Because they were
intended for rigorous, everyday use, they were made of the lightest cotton,
soft to the touch and quick to wash and dry for frequent use.
The shameez was worn under transparent(ish) kurtas, as a screen over the skin, while also revealing our arms and clinging to our bodies in a way that our garments couldn’t. It was thus a strange creation, poised between concealment and revelation. It was the gossamer thin line between respectability and abandon.
Despite the “barely-there” nature of the shameez, it was a garment that in its very delicacy was loaded with meaning. Its presence was a stamp of respectability, its absence was heavily remarked. In my childhood, the idea of a woman wearing an even somewhat transparent kurta without a shameez was simply unthinkable: it was a disgrace, a sign of loose morals and fast character, and most damningly, a sure giveaway of no respectable background to speak of.
etting to the point of being told to wear a shameez was a rite of passage. It was when we learned to see our bodies as spaces for constant scrutiny, much negotiation and frequent antagonism. To wear a shameez marked a discovery of the lines that ruled our bodies and our mind: this far was acceptable to be seen and heard, this was too much.
In many ways the shameez was a paradox, one of the many that now seem to define that time of my life. Its very nature was to remain invisible while disguising the contours of our bodies. So a shameez strap peeking out from your shoulder was a gaucherie, as was wearing one that escaped from the sides of your kurta.
Sometimes in the absentminded haze of mornings I would end up in school wearing a shameez belonging to a taller sister. “Sunday is longer than Monday”, said teachers and classmates alike, tugging at the hems of my slip. The essence of a shameez lay in its non-existence, its tacit absence-presence, much like it rendered our bodies.
In those days of budding adolescence, bodies were battlegrounds. I policed mine relentlessly, watched for signs of indiscretion in others. This is the truth, but written in this way it sounds as if our lives were joyless, as if we spent our youth hunched in attitudes of submission or rebellion, rigid and deprived of nuance. It is a challenge to write such truths, to convey somehow the everyday transactions, the stepping forth and back, the playfulness with which we approached this task.
Perhaps the way to describe it most truthfully is to describe the evening ritual entrusted to us sisters, cousins growing up together in our large, rambling old style bungalow.
The sight of shameez piled up neatly, shimmering under sun-warmed clothes, is a visual memory of the delicacy that defines the experiences of women in communion with each other.
The passing of the day saw different tasks assigned to us. The evening required the gathering of laundry from its lines, its folding and sorting into piles from which it was returned to the many units in our joint family.
This task required certain skills, a sense of discretion in handling the underwear, as well as the ability to recognise garments that grew tangled in their sameness. It required the ability to declare: “This is yours, Tarana”, and: “This one is Sona’s, because she wears hers looser than she needs to”, and, “No, that is mine, it has puffs at the hem, hers is turning yellow, time to get a new one.”
The sight of shameez piled up neatly, shimmering under sun-warmed clothes, is a visual memory of the delicacy that defines the experiences of women in communion with each other, making small spaces large, revealing depths where seemingly none exist.
As testimony to our diligence, the laundry ritual continued
with occasional mix-ups, but for the most part remarkably well, until an aunt who lived abroad got a permanent marker and
wrote our initials on all our shameez, all the bras, all the white shalwars,
the mountains of interchangeable clothes of all the women living separate but
he link between women, clothes and social values of honour and shame are deep and often discussed. Wet saris clinging to bosoms of leading ladies were an oft-used device in Bombay cinema, for instance. Perhaps the most obvious link for this in my own life was through the dupatta, the scarf or veil thrown over the bosom, or even more traditionally, over the head. But I am fascinated by the there-and-not-there nature of the shameez. In particular, I am intrigued by how its absence made the hidden visible.
As a teenager in late 1990s India, for a long time I only saw women without a shameez on trips to Delhi, a two-hour train ride from our home. Sometimes I heard the rebuke: “Will you walk around with your bra showing, like a Punjabi?” Embedded in the chastisement was the conflict between the different worlds emerging in India at the time.
All around me was the fastidiousness of People Like Us, clinging to the remnants of our feudal privileges, forced to make our way in a world that didn’t recognise our claims. On the other side was the new elite, the hungry emerging middle class.
In our biased minds, this new class came under the umbrella term of “Punjabis”. They, and hence the world around us, favoured brassy confidence over delicacy, grasping over discretion. These were not People Like Us, they were everything we were not, and when I came across this world, I watched in part envy, part horror, the display of shameez-less bodies sweating under kurtas, flesh-coloured patches shining through the damp.
My paternal grandmother owned many shameez, soft and delicate, that she wore every day. For as long as I can remember, she wore the same kind of clothes, that nobody else I knew ever wore. A gharara, or long divided skirt, under a long muslin kurta.
The kurta was fastened by gold buttons, with her late husband’s initials on them. “AJK”, intertwined in delicate embrace, and the same initials on the trunk in which she kept her clothes. She never used a wardrobe. Her kurtas were topped with light white dupattas (veils), underlayed by a light shameez. They smelled of the neem leaves that she lined her trunks with, and the jasmine flowers she wore.
During my summer holidays, it would be my task to assist her with her daily bath and with getting dressed after. These arrangements were somewhat epic in scale and took what seemed to me to be hours. I would wait for her to emerge from the bathroom, dripping water, that I would help wipe off.
My real responsibility was to dry and powder her back. I remember tracing her skin, soft as the clothes she wore, delicately woven with a maze of moles, that I would hide behind clouds of talcum powder.
“Put more,” she would urge me, her mind and skin sensitive to every prickle. I would empty a bottle in a week. After the drying and powdering, I would hand her the clothes I already had helped her pick out from her trunk, and waited for her to dress. She was pickiest about her shameez, making sure the hems were soft, the stitching didn’t irritate her skin.
Perhaps her withdrawal was from a world that refused to align to her standards of fastidious simplicity.
Now I map her slow surrender to depression and immobility
through her detachment in degrees from these tiny rituals she had set herself.
Once, in an effort to “cheer her up”, my family took her out to watch a movie.
She came back horrified, looking odd in a shalwar-
kameez, the loose tunic and cotton pants commonly worn in the north of India, and a pair of sneakers. For the entire afternoon, she sat on her prayer mat.
“Don’t ever take me back there”, I heard her telling everyone, and now I know she didn’t mean the cinema. I remember her delight in the familiar, her contentment with being in a placid routine and an unaltered environment.
Perhaps her withdrawal was from a world that refused to align to her standards of fastidious simplicity. In my mind, it is linked with an incident involving her shameez. On the suggestion of one of her Dubai-based daughters, she once wore a bra instead of her usual undergarments. I remember her dismay and the urgency with which she bustled into her dressing room to remove it minutes after she had emerged.
I remember the red welts on her delicate back that had to be soothed with many puffs of talcum powder and slatherings of lotion. And I remember her old retainer helping her cast aside the offending elastic and lace contraption, clucking her tongue with disapproval the whole time. “What on earth made you wear that thing?” said the old woman to my grandmother. “That isn’t for ladies like you.”
For all their ubiquity and handiness, shameez aren’t
easy garments to wear. They peek out from the sides of kurtas, flip out if
kurtas flip over, and are blown around like flags in the wind, stark white
against the colours of the outer garment. These awkward malfunctions have an
air of fustiness to them, like being caught in graying bloomers. As a young
woman, I was adept at such misadventures,
adding another layer to my prickliness about my appearance, and my
distance from my peers.
When I was 13 I was sent to study in Delhi, to what my concerned parents felt was a better school than my small home town had to offer. Soon I was living in girls-only hostels, in the intensely self-absorbed world of teenaged girls, and then similar hostels for young women.
It was somewhere in this journey that I started to read the choices being made for me by my shameez. For instance, it was impossible to wear with jeans, the dress code of hip young women I found myself sharing living quarters with. You had to tuck it into your waistband, and then it bunched up around your buttocks. Sitting was uncomfortable, walking was abrasive.
At what time “lets not wear a shameez” become an option I opened to myself I don’t recall. But from being a staple, the pile of shameez I carried from home to hostel, Aligarh to Delhi, began to dwindle. I learned to say, “I can’t wear so many clothes in this heat”. (“So many” to the one layer that had seemed like skin, soaked up the fluids and the smells my body cast forth, that had substituted even for laundry. “Don’t bother washing the kurta, I will just wash the shameez”—this was a reasonable, often used formula in hostel life).
I learned to ask my reflection in the mirror, wearing a delicate kurta, “Do I need a shameez with it?” It was much later that I learned that to say “Yes, actually”, was not necessarily a matter of shame, or a capitulation.
I look in the wardrobes of my younger cousins and grown-up nieces, and find no shameez. For them, the soft sheer fabric of this archaic clothing choice has been replaced by the elasticky efficiency of tank tops.
They have never known wardrobes without them, these young women studying and working in a country transformed in the course of just a few years, just as they have never known an India without the Internet, malls or air conditioning.
Just as they have never folded laundry in the evening, or shared stuff because there wasn’t enough, and that was okay, that was how things were. Who have never known bodies deprived of choices, who have never known bodies with the freedom to stay unremarkable.
But when I wear these tank tops under my sheer kurta, taking in the feel of the material they are made of, the way they cleave to my body with no inquisitive edges, no mistakes, my mother looks at me and says, “Tauba, how dreadful your legs look under that.” And I debate with her, ask her question about why, and talk of values and how times have changed.
But when I look in the mirror my eyes seek the seamlessness that is the shadow cast by a shameez, under the flow of my kurta till my knees, where instead there is the abruptness of an ending. The hard lines of my new underclothes disdain such thoughts, like the soaring modernity of the apartments that have come up around my home seem to disdain the arches of our verandah, framing the inner courtyard where my grandmother spent winter days, summer nights.
alking in the bazaars of Aligarh, I see dozens of coloured shameez displayed at streetside shops, fluttering like proud flags of body-shaped nations. They have lace edges, and are machine stitched, a little harsh but, the teenaged boy selling them assures me, they will become soft with washing. I don’t know what to say.
I have never discussed a shameez with a man before. I am caught unawares with my own discomfort. It finds its roots in the shrinking we (women) embraced for ourselves and imposed on others.
Through my awkward adolescence and movement into womanhood, I collided with pressures to pass as a “good” Muslim girl. To mould my mind and my voice, my very presence and my choices, into acceptability.
This far and no further.
To be this girl that everyone loved, to don a layer of smiles and acceptance, to not ask too many questions and assume that elders (men) knew best, over the nastiness and the raw stridency and the many, many questions that was me, was like wearing a shameez over my own self.
The same shrinking made me head for women’s enclosures, prompted me to seek sanctuary from the gazes of men, to melt into backgrounds.
It prompted me to accept that some places were indeed not for me, and that I didn’t get to choose what these places may be. The instinct is a strong one, and every so often it raises its head even now. It would rule me if it could. That it doesn’t is proof to the complexity of women’s experiences, and the porousness of environments that appear monotonously oppressive, or at least just dull.
Aligarh is a university town, and I once went to a rock concert in the campus. The term “rock concert” is perhaps too grand for the very modest scale of this event, but in Aligarh in the Nineties, this prompted a wave of excitement.
I was driven to the venue by my father, and saw a crowd of students, all boys, laughing and shouting, having a great time. I saw there were no other women around. I saw the crowd of boys turning towards the car, sensing my discomfort even behind the rolled-up windows, sensing me sweating as they jeered and nudged each other. I stayed in the car, resigned within seconds to missing something I had been anticipating for weeks. I didn’t give it a second thought—the onus was on me to vanish.
My father rescued me from my self- imposed prison. He walked me to a spot close to the stage, and I heard out the concert with the other women students, partly sequestered, but for one of the very first times, a part of the crowd.
ur bodies are traitors. For all the pampering, all the scrutiny we give them, they have their own way with us. I think of my grandmother’s body during the last years of her life. I see her wasted frame, tubes running into her veins, unable to move, or talk, or recognise her own self. A woman with a dozen shameez in her trunk, she was laid exposed and bare, her mind stripped of memories, lacerated with pain.
Our bodies are traitors, but they are all we have to set out in the world, to lay stake to our lives. I think of an aunt, a professional who supported her family after her husband’s death, working furiously while also refusing to stop having fun. Most importantly, she refused to slouch into “bechaargi”, the word meaning “poor thing”, carrying the baggage of self-pity, or a general attitude of misery. My aunt chose the opposite. She entered rooms, she challenged people, she sparkled, she provoked and she made demands.
In all respects, she was no shrinking violet. Yet here’s the thing about her clothes. When she went to work, she wore a sari. But when she wore a shalwar-kameez, she would wear a double layer of shameez under her tunic, all because she was too shy to buy a bra.
In such contradictory layers of diffidence and courage are our stories wrapped. The subtlety of shameez seems perfectly suited to express these stories. To embrace them and all that they represent has little to do with clothes, and much to do with recognising and eventually owning the subversive potential that hidden layers harbour.