Sabyasachi Mukherjee, the founder and owner of the Sabyasachi brand name, recently said that Indian women who do not know how to drape a saree should be ashamed of themselves.

At the Harvard India Conference, the designer said, I think, if you tell me that you do not know how to wear a saree, I would say shame on you. It’s a part of your culture, you need to stand up for it”.

Sabyasachi Mukherjee is only one of the many names in a long list of names who often like telling women what to do. From politicians to actors and now evidently even designers, men shaming women for their lack of touch with their ‘culture’ and imposing said culture on them isn’t new.

Indian women have been shamed in the name of culture for very long now. We often forget that the right to choose remains even when the choice might not be one we agree with or even if the choice is one that goes against our culture or traditions.

Sabyasachi probably doesn’t actually care whether Indian women wear a saree, this was probably a gimmick to show much he cares about Indian customs to boost his sales. But his statements are problematic, nonetheless.

men shaming women for their lack of touch with their ‘culture’ and imposing said culture on them isn’t new.

Giving women freedom, but only as long as this freedom sits perfectly between cultural and traditional lines, isn’t real freedom. Freedom cannot come with conditions. If it does, then it ceases to be freedom at all. But this feeble excuse in the name of freedom is all most Indian women are granted.

Our focus on sexism ends the moment culture, custom and traditions are introduced into the conversation. We place customs on a pedestal, in a position where they cannot be touched, where they cannot be subjected to scrutiny, where they cannot be called out for what’s wrong.

We often forget that customs, like most other things, is a choice. They can be accepted or rejected. They aren’t sacred simply by virtue of existing for several decades.

Sabyasachi Mukherjee wouldn’t agree with me, but a saree at the end of the day is a garment, a garment people can either choose or reject. Rejecting it isn’t a testimony of your disloyalty to your culture. Even if it were, it is okay to choose to not be loyal to it.

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That brings us to the question, does culture come above individuality? Do customs bear greater intrinsic value than free choice? It doesn’t.

Customs are essential practices that have been practised for centuries and all our customs together form our culture. But just because something has stuck around for long enough doesn’t mean it’s right. When a society is severely patriarchial, it seeps into its culture and customs as well.

Our culture and our customs are patriarchial and usually problematic to women. The importance of virginity for women, dowry and various other questionable practices are also part of our culture, but these practices are a testimony to the fact that cultures cannot be flawless and they need to be questioned.

Sabyasachi doesn’t think the millions of Indian men who do not own a dhoti should be ashamed. He doesn’t think the millions of Malayali men who don’t wear a mundu should be ashamed. Nor does he shame all the men who do not own or wish to own an achkan or an angrakha.

His judgment and shaming are exclusively reserved for women. Just like the judgment and shaming of millions of other men and women that are exclusively reserved for Indian women. People constantly speak of the necessity to ‘protect’ Indian women from westernization and modernization, never once stopping to ask if they even want to be protected in the first place.

just because something has stuck around for long enough doesn’t mean it’s right.

Shaming women for a lack of touch with their culture – even when this lack of touch is of their own choosing – is a great control mechanism to keep women ‘in their place’ to tell them what they can choose and what they ought to reject. When you force women to abide by a patriarchal culture that dehumanises them and rejects their intelligence and abilities and doesn’t afford them positions of power, you make them a part of their own oppression. This can be done only by making people believe that your culture cannot be questioned, that it will be imposed on you by the virtue of birth.

By making women a part of their own oppression is the only way oppression can be maintained for very long. When we women are forced to not question patriarchy and sexism in a culture we are asked to revere, we engage in our own oppression.

It’s time we see that culture isn’t sacred. It’s time we realize flaws exist in our culture along with all the good in it. Above all, its time we call out people like Sabyasachi Mukherjee for shaming us for our choices just because it doesn’t fit his idea of what culture means.

Culture is much more than clothing. You can love and accept your culture while at the same time rejecting some parts of it and acknowledging that it carries flaws, like all cultures everywhere.

Culture is something that should grow with time, incorporate all kinds of people, and it should be something that binds us together while at the same time not asking us to let go of our individuality. Culture can be beautiful, but as long as it isn’t used as another tool to shame women.

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Featured Image Credit: Samachar Jagat

Update: Sabyasachi Mukherjee has since issued an open letter apologizing for using the word ‘shame’.

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