Shame and the Shalwar Kameez

By Ali Zafar

My mom’s not a jeans and t-shirt type of girl.

And now in her mid-50s, it’s doubtful she’ll ever be one. My mom feels most comfortable in the traditional Pakistani shalwar-kameez, a loose-fitting tunic top and flowing pajama-like pants that billow in the wind every time I see her walk out of our Mississauga home.

Her outfits often have unimaginable bright hues, anywhere from magenta to parrot green, colours that seem to blind you on a cold, tombstone-grey Canadian winter day. They always grab my attention.

I try to coerce my mom into buying blue jeans and dull-coloured khakis, explain to her they’re really not as uncomfortable as she thinks. It’s worked a couple of times. I’ve seen my mom don jeans, but she’s never as happy in them as she is wearing the shalwar-kameez. I don’t blame her.

The loose fit of a shalwar-kameez offers your body a plethora of freedoms modern-day jean wearers could only dream of, my mom says. They’ve been worn by Indians for thousands of years, long before 20th century feminism made trouser-totting women the norm across the western world.

But this is less about how comfortable my mom is in a shalwar-kameez, and more about how uncomfortable I feel around my mom when she’s wearing it in public places.

My heart usually skips a beat when strangers glare at my mom’s outfit as I walk with her during a quick grocery run at Highland Farms or the Square One Walmart. It never phases her, but I can barely take another step without tripping over my embarrassment.

Maybe it’s me.

Maybe I’ve internalized a racism handed down to my people from hundreds of years of British rule in colonial South Asia, during a time when signs at train stations would point out ‘dogs and Indians not allowed.’ A time when everything English in British India would be a symbol of success, including trousers.

It’s partly that. Success.

I see my mom’s brightly-coloured outfits as the antithesis of success, of a failed attempt to conform to Canada’s cultural norms, of not moving forward in our adopted homeland. In Pakistan, the motherland, wearing shalwar-kameez is normal. Here, it’s abnormal.

As much as we tout multiculturalism in Toronto and the GTA, deep down I feel attributes of cultures other than English or French are just fringes, colourful displays of otherness that make for great summer festivals.

Or maybe it’s the recent wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that seems to have crashed ashore across a Tory-blue Canada that’s made me uncomfortable around my mom’s outfit choices. The last thing I want for my mom to deal with is some lunatic harassing her in public over her clothes.

But then maybe I am that crazed lunatic.

Ali Zafar is a Toronto-based journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @MohammadAliZ.

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