SAN LEANDRO, Calif. — “It’s time we stop apologizing for our skin color, language and culture,” says the woman behind the viral hashtag #SareeNotSorry, a campaign to discourage negative attitudes of people towards Indian Americans and bring attention to the positive aspects of Indian culture.
Meet Tanya Rawal, an Indian American professor at the University of California, Riverside. Since September, using the hashtag #SareeNotSorry, Rawal has been tweeting and instagramming pictures of herself wearing sarees in myriad colors and fabrics, sometimes accessorized with a belt and boots. At first, the idea was just a teaching experiment.
“My experiment was on what does it mean to be brown and a woman, and I was hoping to generate some questions in the class around being a minority in this country,” Rawal told India-West by phone from Riverside.
Recalling the initial days of the campaign, she said that her students were completely taken aback after seeing her in this new avatar.
“The first day I walked into the class, everyone just went silent, which was great,” she said. “I think it was the authority that I exuded through the saree.”
But what started as a teaching experiment ten weeks ago has become a full-blown movement on social media, with women across the world posting pictures of themselves in sarees, using the hashtag she started.
“The saree is such a functional piece of fabric and I love sarees,” Rawal noted. “It’s such a beautiful and useful piece of clothing and you can pretty much do anything wearing it.”
But, along with highlighting the beauty and cultural importance of a saree, Rawal is using the classic, unstitched garment of six yards to make a larger point: counter the mounting xenophobic sentiments in the U.S.
“Following Donald Trump’s first Republican debate, I was really taken aback by the anti-immigration sentiment,” Rawal explained to India-West.
“As if I look like a terrorist and because of that people have the right to question me, and my citizenship becomes questionable.”
“Yes, people are concerned about illegal immigrants, but the fact of the matter is that any brown person can potentially look illegal,” she added.
Rawal feels that the saree is the perfect tool for fighting back at any negative attitudes towards Indian Americans, because people in the United States associate the garment with Indians.
Flaunting her Indianness in sarees, which were collected for the project by her mother in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Rawal chose fashion to communicate, because she feels clothing can help negotiate one’s cultural identity.
“Fashion is like race,” noted Rawal. “It’s the first thing that you see about a person. If you see my skin color and you see brown, your immediate reaction to being brown is dangerous, terrorist and illegal.”
“And if you are not going to speak to another person, they are going to see your clothes and your clothes will speak to them,” she added.
Citing incidences of violence against Indian Americans, such as the 2012 Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting and the Sureshbhai Patel case in Alabama, Rawal said, “I have a few white friends who say we are not worried about Indians. They are the good people.”
“But my response to that is, if we are good, why have are our gurudwaras been shot, why have we have been attacked at airports?”
“You might be nice to your Indian doctor in his office,” she told India-West. “But how do you treat them when they are in a restaurant, seated next to you, or on the streets when you are walking past them.”
Rawal stated that the saree is that piece of clothing which carries thousands of years of culture and history.
“I want Indian Americans to really understand India,” she said. “The sari fabric has such an amazing history, politically and economically. Calling attention to that for the Indian audience was really important for me too.”
She opines that in order to assimilate, one needs to embrace his/her culture and be proud of his/her roots.
“I was really disappointed in Bobby Jindal,” said the Louisiana native. “There is absolutely no need to lose the hyphen that he was talking about. It is possible to be an Indian and American,” she said, adding, “One of the ways Indians need to do that in this country is to know their own culture.”
Taking about the black/white binary racial construct in the United States, Rawal said that Indians in the United States experience a representational crisis, and photos of women wearing sarees sends out a powerful message.
“The discourse on race in America is binary — it’s white or black,” Rawal told India-West. “It’s not good for the other minorities. We don’t have a language for ourselves.”
If other communities of color embrace their culture, Rawal said, “We will each have our own language, and it will break open the black/white racial divide.”
The young professor confessed that after the initial struggle of draping a saree, she has now perfected the art.
Rawal has never been one to shy away from her culture, and remembers wearing a dupatta with jeans and a shirt even as a child.
“I first wore a saree to my winter formal in high school,” she said, adding that she has been mixing Indian jewelry into her wardrobe for a long time. “My nani was a fashionista and for me to stay close to her after she passed away, was to wear her jewelry and her clothes.”
Her campaign is also blurring racial lines.
“Some of my other minority group friends have also pulled out their clothes and say we are going to wear these,” she said.
Rawal, who has completed her doctorate in comparative literature, will be teaching at California State University in Los Angeles in January 2016. She plans to continue this campaign to dispel negative stereotypes about Indian Americans through other projects.
“We will be starting a podcast in February 2016,” she shared. “I want to talk to other people who are interested in this intersection of fashion and politics, such as eco-conscious or politically aware fashion designers, who are already taking advantage of the fabrics to tell people about you.”
There is a certain level of class privilege in choosing your fashion and not everyone has the choice to make a statement by what they are wearing, she feels.
“I am just interested in conveying that, don’t perceive me as terrorist. I am more interested in being seen as an Indian American, because I like being able to be both,” she said.