SKs and mainstays: What to wear in the Desh (for women)

Clothes are a huge part of culture and, somehow, knowing what people put on their bodies and what they wear as they go about their daily lives helps us to understand what that life is like.

Loads of people from home have asked me ‘what do you wear?’ – and I know that was a huge question I had before I left for Bangladesh. Travellers know that women are often expected to change the way they dress when travelling or living in a different culture – often more so than men – in order to be culturally sensitive. So what do you pack? What should you expect? Is it necessary to wear local clothes? How easy is it to make the transition? Does it feel like wearing a costume? Is it comfortable?

So here’s my low-down on threads in the Desh.


SK three-piece

In a ready-made three-piece – see how my orna and the detailing on the sleeves match the pants? (This SK from Aarong; little person not included)

While the traditional dress for women in Bangladesh is the sharee (sari), the Salwar-Kameez (SK) is now standard everyday wear for most middle-class Bengali women. This outfit is made up of a long top (kameez – it’s distinguishable from a dress because of the slits down the sides from the hips), pants (salwar), and a scarf or shawl (orna).

Matching your outfits is very important here, and most Bangladeshi women buy their SKs as a pre-designed ‘three-piece’, either off the rack (‘ready-made’/’cut’) or as a set of fabric that is then taken to the tailor to be sewn up in your size (‘uncut’). Usually the salwar and kameez will be made with different but matching fabrics, and the orna will tie the outfit together, often by repeating the pattern of the pants.


A colleague wears a three-piece SK while we walk through a rural village on a field trip. This is standard office wear for most Bengali women.

If you’re working in an office with mainly local staff (like me), wearing SKs is probably the easiest way to fit in, clothes-wise. It’s easy (buy whole outfits in one go and never worry about making decisions in the morning again!) and comfortable (yes, thank you, I would love to wear pajamas to work every day).

What is a boob curtain and how do I wear one?

As in any country, to avoid scandalising anyone, it’s important to ‘dress modestly’. Putting aside the slut shaming politics of this for a moment, let’s look at what that means in practice.

You might think your boobs are covered, by a shirt and several layers of fabric in your bra, but you were wrong! You also need an orna (sometimes called the ‘boob curtain’ by certain volunteers I know). The function of an orna is to hide your chest modestly. Most women wear their scarves ‘back to front’, with the end hanging down your back and the middle fold sitting over the chest, as this keeps the hot fabric off the back of your neck. It’s also fine to wear a scarf hanging down your front, or looped around, as long as it hides your chest.

Hippy chic

Hippy chic: If I’m wearing a shorter shirt I’ll often wear super-baggy pants to compensate (yes, I actually wear poo-catcher pants to work). Note I’m still wearing a thin black scarf.

My crotch is exposed? What do you even mean?

The length of your shirt/top is also important. Feel free to wear t-shirts, shirts, blouses etc from home (even if they don’t look like a kameez) but ideally whatever you wear will cover your bum and crotch. Wearing anything that doesn’t come down past your hips will leave your crotch ‘exposed’… Yes, even if you’re wearing pants. The idea is to keep that region as baggy and invisible as possible.

Remember to also keep your shoulders covered: short sleeves are fine, but if you have a sleeveless top you can use your orna to wrap your shoulders up with a scarf.

Alternative styles that work well

While buying SKs here and wearing them all the time can seem like the simple and culturally friendly thing to do, chances are there will be days when you just want to wear western clothes and feel like yourself again. You won’t be able to wear anything too revealing in the street (unless you’re happy attracting a lot of attention), so I recommend bringing short shorts and dancing around the house in them, just to get it out of your system.

But there are other things you can wear in public. DIY three-pieces are a way of inserting your normal clothes into a Bangla-friendly outfit. You might wear a baggy, long top with local pants and scarf, or on a cooler day you might wear a kameez with jeans. If your top is loose you might want to ditch the scarf.

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You can also wear short (or calf-length) dresses with leggings – as long as you’re covering your bum, tight pants are A-OK.

maxi dress

The Maxi dress and shawl combo (complete with turtle tank in background)

Maxi dresses are also a great alternative to pants and tops, and provide a bit of variety. Just wrap your shoulders up with a wide shawl!

If you’re heading out on the town and want to wear something more revealing but don’t want to draw stares on your way there, you can even wear a short tight dress and take the leggings and orna off when you arrive. Kimonos are also known for coming in handy if you want a full-body cover-up.

Head coverings

Bangladesh is a Muslim country, and many women choose to cover their heads for religious reasons. Some women wear their orna as a ‘veil’, draped loosely; some use the end of their sharee in traditional style; some wear a more Arab-inspired hijab; and some choose to wear a full niqab, covering the lower part of their face, often with long dark-coloured cloak over their normal clothes.

However, head-covering isn’t essential and many local women choose not to cover. In Dhaka, it will generally be assumed that unless you are Muslim you won’t want to cover, and most people are comfortable with that. In more rural villages where expectations can be more traditional and conservative, you might want to cover as a sign of respect, but again, it’s not expected.

Dressing up

Dressing up

Dressing up for a formal dinner: me in a sharee, Ollie in punjabi/kurta.

You’ll see a lot of people wearing sharees around town – poorer and more traditional women often choose to wear them every day, tying them with a simple and comfortable drape.

While most wealthier women don’t wear them every day (although some do – especially older women), they are an essential part of any formal occasion. If you’re invited to a wedding, important party, meeting with dignitaries or even just a conference, sharees are standard formal attire. I wouldn’t want to wear one every day (they’re a bit restrictive), but they’re great fun and incredibly elegant – a room full of sharee-clad women is really quite a sight.

On the whole: Bangladeshi clothing is generally comfortable (I can’t stress this enough, I basically wear pajamas to work every day), easy to organise (three-pieces really take the decision-making out of your morning) and colourful (let loose your inner rainbow unicorn child!)

Packing: If you’re travelling through, bring cool and comfortable long pants, some longer, baggy shirts and a couple of scarves.

If you’re moving here, I recommend planning to buy quite a few three-piece SKs when you get here, as well as some kameezes to go with other pants. But don’t throw away your jeans and minis just yet – there’s a place for them here too. (For more packing advice, see my post on What to pack when you’re moving to the Desh).

13 things you should know about Bangladesh

urban density

Bangladesh’s urban density is literally off the charts (graph from The Economist)

  1. More than 161 million people live here, and Dhaka is by far the most densely populated urban area in the world.
  2. It used to be part of India, but was separated when the British Raj removed from the subcontinent. The area was then divided up into India and Pakistan, which, bizarrely, had two parts: West Pakistan (now Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). This process was dubbed ‘Partition’. West Pakistan and East Pakistan were made the same country because they shared a religion,  but they were separated by culture, topography, and a huge expanse of Indian territory.
  3. Bangladeshis fought a bloody war of independence from West Pakistan and became a sovereign state in 1971. The right to speak Bangla and maintain local culture was a key focus of the war, and once a year National Mother Tongue Day celebrates and remembers those who fought for it.
  4. It’s very flat, and very wet. The country is dominated by a huge delta, the mouth of South Asia’s two biggest river systems. Flowing down from the Himalayas, the rivers become the Ganges and Brahmaputra in India, and then the kilometres-wide Jamuna and Padma in Bangladesh before flowing into the Bay of Bengal.
  5. Bangla is the language, Bengali is the ethnicity, and Bangladeshi refers to nationality (although these terms are used interchangably and can get a bit political).
  6. Bangla is the seventh most spoken language in the world.
  7. Rabindranath Tagore: 'I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.'

    Rabindranath Tagore: ‘I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.’

    Most people here are Muslim, but the constitution is explicitly secular.

  8. It was the first country in the world to ban the distribution of plastic bags.
  9. It’s one of the few countries that acknowledge a third gender – you can register formally as ‘male’, ‘female’ or ‘other’. Male to female (MTF) transgender people, known as hijras, are still harshly discriminated against but are culturally acknowledged, thanks largely to the part that eunuchs played in the country’s long Mughal history.
  10. Bangladesh has the fourth highest rate of child marriages in the world.
  11. Both the Prime Minister and leader of the Opposition are women. The former is the is the daughter of the first PM, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, known as “Bongobondhu” (friend of Bengal) or the “Father of the Nation”. The other is the widow of Ziaur Rahman, who took power when Bongobondhu was assassinated.
  12. Rabindrinath Tagore is the National Poet and a Bengali treasure. A polymath known mainly as a poet and musician, he was the first non-European to win the Nobel prize in Literature (in 1913). He wrote the Bangladesh National Anthem and was friends with Einstein, famously debating him about the meaning of the universe and the nature of knowledge.
  13. Bengalis use 98.69% less electricity per person than Australians.

Writing women into power

Begum Rokeya

One of the portraits around the guesthouse where I’m staying in Rangpur

I’m going to come clean straight away – I didn’t know who she was until I got to Bangladesh. She’s so famous in South Asia that here in Rangpur, her home town and where I’m staying for a field trip to the northern region, the auditorium is dedicated to her and I’ve spotted several portraits of her, including one in the cafeteria.

Begum Roquia Sakhawat Hussain, better known as Begum Rokeya, was a social reformer and pioneer of women’s education and liberation. Born in 1880 and living in what was then British-ruled India (now northern Bangladesh), she publicly opposed gender discrimination and the practice of purdah (seclusion), whereby women kept indoors and public life belonged exclusively to men. Famously, she compared the living conditions of contemporary Indian women to slavery.

Practicing what she preached, when she became widowed she established a school for girls using her husband’s money. She ignited a regional discussion that’s still raging, and began the process of allowing women access to education and power. In a country with a female Prime Minister and female Opposition Leader, she continues to inspire women and men who work towards a more equal life for women in Bangladesh and India.

She also wrote sci-fi short stories about worlds where women were in charge and did things properly (like developing solar power). Some of them were written in English – you can read Sultana’s Dream online. It’s not Shakespeare but it’s pretty kick-ass. Have a read and celebrate a century of South Asian feminism with me!

‘Why do you allow yourselves to be shut up?’

‘Because it cannot be helped as they are stronger than women.’

‘A lion is stronger than a man, but it does not enable him to dominate the human race. You have neglected the duty you owe to yourselves and you have lost your natural rights by shutting your eyes to your own interests.’

A meta moment: stay with me while I blog about my blog

When I created this blog, it was meant to be a way of recording my journey to the Desh – and sharing it with you, my dear friends and family, and anonymous yet beloved netizens. But in reality, it has also shaped it – I see things differently, look for colours, images and ideas, try to understand cultural issues more deeply, think more critically. Thinking about how I might blog about something has become a lens for viewing the world: one that has often put it in sharper focus.

I haven’t blogged as much as I hoped I would. I’m still trying to find ways to make it part of my more normal routine; and I’m still learning how to let go and talk about my life, myself, and not try to turn every post into a full-blown travel writer’s article.

There are also things I haven’t been able to write about yet. One of the most confronting experiences here is how I feel, behave and am perceived as a woman. It’s been a fundamental shift in how I navigate and belong in the world, and it’s not an easy thing to write about. It’s also hugely sensitive, nuanced and complex, and not what I thought it would be. I’ve also been trying to understand my privilege as a white person and an expat in this world – a bideshi – and as a person with a comfortable income, which by local standards is an embarrassment of riches. I think about how I would describe and explain these things to you, dear reader,  all almost every day, but I’m not there yet, I’m not quite ready. Five months in, the words are still coming together, the ideas still slowly unblurring in my mind.

It’s also been a journey of blogging itself. You might have noticed that my blog is a straight-out-of-the-box theme with very few bells and whistles: there’s a reason for that, and it’s that the HTML back-end gives me the heebiejeebies. Some of my under-the-bonnet tinkering has worked but other times it’s not pretty, and I panic and go back. This lack of knowledge is another funny restriction: a barrier to helping me express all the things I want to express, even if I have the time and the words. But recently I’ve done a bit of learning and am trying to move on from super-rookie to standard beginner: you might notice some more images turn up over the coming months, in slightly more fun formats. Hopefully having a better understanding of how to present things here will mean I can give you a bigger, clearer picture of life in the Desh.

In the meantime, I’ll stick at it. Thanks to all of you who’ve been reading. 🙂

52 Portraits: Mamma-di

Mamme-diI’m not sure what CARE Bangladesh’s HR policy is for hiring drivers, but I have a suspicion they have a strong affirmative-action approach to hiring women: in a country where driving is one of the most universally male jobs, many of our work drivers are women.

This is Mamma. She works for CARE in our Cox’s Bazar office, down on the coast near Myanmar. She’s what Bengalis call ‘tribal’: she grew up in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, an area which is home to the many different indigenous ethnicities of south-eastern Bangladesh, and is still riven by the conflict begun during the country’s partition from India.

Mamma has the kind of charisma that makes everyone love her. She’s sunny and easy-going but also a bit kick-ass. We couldn’t talk much (my Bangla is still very basic) but I can’t tell you how fond I became of this woman over the week that she drove us around.