Symphony Chakma, Trichi Chakma
The thing about being indigenous in Bangladesh is that we’re either put on a pedestal or mistreated by people. Bangladesh is a diverse country with diverse people. It’s culturally rich, too. Coming from one of those culturally diverse groups, I’ve always been proud of the culture I come from.
Prior to the incident mentioned in this article, I came across a lovely post by a friend of mine who was mistaken for being indigenous. The racist comments sent to her by a total stranger on Messenger were enough to make me feel disheartened. Our cultures are viewed under a scrutinised lens by the majority in the country.
We are considered “exotic”, and our cultures and lives are glamorised by those in power who are fascinated by them.
One particular Friday morning, I woke up to a text from my cousin about a post made by a renowned fashion designer. In that particular post, there was a picture of our traditional hadi captioned under “Bibi Russel’s latest collection.”’ Seeing this particular post disappointed me. I was proud to see my cousin Trichi make a post on her Facebook wall about the particular situation while educating anyone who saw the post.
In her words, these were the events that unfolded before she made the post, and the aftermath:
I commented on that particular photo as soon as I was made aware of it by a relative of mine. Within some minutes, both of our comments were removed (Bibi Russell even blocked my relative). This resulted in both of us giving statuses instead. Bibi Russell simply avoided contacting my relative, who is much older than me, although it was her who had commented and given the status first.
Just a few minutes after the status, I saw Bibi Russell contacting me on messenger, and she had called me quite a few times, including a text saying she ‘needs to talk to me’ and that I ‘should pick up the call’. It was around 1 at night and let’s just say, I was pretty helpless as my parents were asleep and nobody who could help me was active online.
But I made her understand that I couldn’t talk over phone and that it would be better if she texted. She did call a couple of times in between our texts, which I declined. Every time she called, she texted me to pick up so that she could make me understand. I don’t know what she wanted to make me understand that couldn’t be done via text.
Anyways, I pointed out the wrongness in her post with examples and facts quite a few times, but her only counter arguments were that she ‘loves my culture’, ‘knows Monjulika Di’, ‘has made a movie about our culture and traditional clothing’. When I talked about how this was cultural appropriation, no less than plagiarism as credit and details weren’t given, she added that she didn’t give credit for using fabrics.
I even told a couple of times that it wasn’t just the fabric, but the design — the way it was made matched our traditional cloth (khadi). I even asked her to address this issue instead of just deleting the picture from her collection album, but she only talked about how upset she was with me for misunderstanding her as she loves our culture a lot.
Coming to the collection, according to her, a collection didn’t necessarily mean it was made by the designer, rather that it was a tribute to the incredible craftsmen. But none of the other pictures in her collection album seemed to have been traditional clothing of any other group; the rest was designed by Bibi Russell herself, made of fabrics from around the country.
When I pointed this out she ended up admitting that it wasn’t made by her, but a weaver from Rangamati. I mean, she could have said this earlier in our convo, right? But she only said this after talking to me for 2 hours. She did add that her Facebook account wasn’t run by her but her management group, who were to be blamed for this.
Lastly, she apologised to me for her team’s mistake. I asked her if she could address this issue publicly because it wasn’t just me who deserved an apology, but she hasn’t done anything till now. Also, she has deleted every comment on her post against her so that the audience do not have any idea about her wrongdoing.
The issue of cultural appropriation seems to be foreign in Bangladesh. In Bangladeshi social media, it is regarded as something that only happens in the west. People make fun of the idea of cultural appropriation. Often, critics ask, “aren’t cultures meant to be shared?”
Well, to these critics, I have to say this: Imagine if some large Western company — think Fashion Nova — took something like a sari and claimed it to be a part of their own collection. They claimed that it was just an outfit that they had thought of on the spot. Now, this company sourced the designs and clothes from a local designer who is struggling to pay her bills while they profit off it.
It would cause outrage, wouldn’t it?
The unknown weaver mentioned by Bibi Russell never got the credit they deserved. They may have just gotten a small profit from it but then their efforts would have gone unrecognised. The problematic aspects of this particular exchange shows that, more often than not, the efforts of a small indigenous designer go unrecognised when the product of their hard work is sold to a bigger designer that is renowned internationally.
While Bibi Russell may not hold the same sort of power that Western designers do, she does have an uneven power dynamic with the person she sourced her design from. It is important to note that, outside of Bangladesh, the hadi would have been seen as an original product of Bibi Russell. She would have ended up getting the credit, instead of the culture she was merely borrowing from.
Her silence on the topic, plus her quietly deleting the original photo from the main post, makes her seem guilty. All we ask for is a formal apology from her, as well as an acknowledgement from the weaver who gave her the hadi in the first place. Her deflection from the topic by mentioning how much she “loves our culture” and how she “has done documentaries on our culture” shows that she speaks from a privileged standpoint and that she refuses to empathise or try to understand our point of view.
While cultural appropriation may seem like a Westernised concept, Trichi and I would like you all to consider that it is also a topic that affects cultures in Bangladesh. It’s not too late to educate yourself on this topic and be mindful of what is affecting the vulnerable cultures that exist in our beautiful country.
Symphony is currently an international student at Zoom University. Very recently, she has become a self-proclaimed gamer girl. Trichi is currently in her final year of Zoom High School. And she is still in search of her great expectations.