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Sabyasachi Redeems Himself With Apology After 'Saree And Shame' Comments

It's commendable that instead of defending his words, the designer reflected on them and realised why he needed to apologise

Sabyasachi Redeems Himself With Apology After '<i>Saree</i> And Shame' Comments

It's been a tough few days for the designer (Image Credit: sabyasachiofficial)

It's been a tough few days for designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee and his team. The popular Indian Bollywood and wedding couture designer was in the eye of the storm after he managed to offend the women of the country with his remarks at the Harvard India Conference on February 10, shaming women who did not know how to wear sarees. Today, in a long, verbose three-part open letter on social media, the designer apologised to all the women who had taken exception to his harsh comments, and clarified what he had intended to say, even as he took full responsibility for his unthinking rebuke in the heat of the moment.

"I am sorry that I used the word 'shame' in reference to some women's inability to wear a sari. I truly regret that the way in which I tried to make a point about the sari enabled it to be interpreted as misogynistic, patriarchal, and non-inclusive - this was certainly not my intention," he says at the start of the letter.

 

To begin, allow me to sincerely apologise for the words that I used while answering impromptu questions at a conference at Harvard. I am sorry that I used the word ‘shame’ in reference to some women’s inability to wear a sari. I truly regret that the way in which I tried to make a point about the sari enabled it to be interpreted as misogynistic, patriarchal, and non-inclusive – this was certainly not my intention. Let me provide some context for those of you who may not have listened to the speech I gave at Harvard. A woman had asked me to comment on the cultural taboo of young women wearing saris because, as she said, society tells them that it ‘makes them look older’. ‘What is your suggestion’, she asked, ‘for those young generations, to break that taboo and embrace the sari…’ Unbeknownst to many, this is a question I field often with friends and customers. The ubiquity of such sentiments in our culture, evidenced by the fact that this question was posed to me at Harvard, of all places, was hard-hitting and triggered an unfortunate series of reactions on my part. Sometimes, when you are that invested in your craft, you become hypersensitive to the negativity surrounding that which you love. #Sabyasachi #TheWorldOfSabyasachicolor:#c9c8cd; font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; line-height:17px; margin-bottom:0; margin-top:8px; overflow:hidden; padding:8px 0 7px; text-align:center; text-overflow:ellipsis; white-space:nowrap;">A post shared by Sabyasachi Mukherjee (@sabyasachiofficial) on

 

Sabyasachi further went on to elaborate, "Now I have worked with the sari for 16 years. During this time, I have had countless open dialogues in various forums pan-India with women of all age groups and income brackets about the constant barrage of negativity surrounding it. Yet another question of ageism and the sari at Harvard triggered a lot of pent-up frustration that I have accrued for that segment of our society which constantly expresses disdain for this piece of Indian heritage. It is this frustration that I unfortunately generalised to Indian women in response to the question, when I now see that I should have framed it as a call to stop shaming the sari and whomever chooses to wear it. I am passionate about textiles and our heritage, and I am sorry that in the heat of that moment, I allowed this passion to be misplaced. I take full responsibility for this."

To reiterate his displeasure over the ageist comments that women wearing sarees often have to face, he continued to talk about how even educated men and women often systematically and continuously belittle and shame the saree and its wearers by calling them 'Auntie'. He also equated this dismissive and sarcastic attitude towards sarees to cultural repression and backwardness of thought.

"Many women, young and old, are scared to have an outing in a sari because it is shrouded in so many layers of taboo and controversy, often citing inability to correctly drape a sari as an exit point," he wrote.

 

Now I have worked with the sari for 16 years. During this time, I have had countless open dialogues in various forums pan-India with women of all age groups and income brackets about the constant barrage of negativity surrounding it. Yet another question of ageism and the sari at Harvard triggered a lot of pent-up frustration that I have accrued for that segment of our society which constantly expresses disdain for this piece of Indian heritage. It is this frustration that I unfortunately generalised to Indian women in response to the question, when I now see that I should have framed it as a call to stop shaming the sari and whomever chooses to wear it. I am passionate about textiles and our heritage, and I am sorry that in the heat of that moment, I allowed this passion to be misplaced. I take full responsibility for this. On the topic of the sari, I ask you today: how many times have you or someone you know encountered this issue? Body shaming, attaching connotations of ‘Auntie Ji’, calling them sloppy; these are all ways that some men and women alike belittle the sari (and, more accurately, the wearer of the sari). These comments are laced with sarcasm and connotations of cultural repression and backwardness. Many women, young and old, are scared to have an outing in a sari because it is shrouded in so many layers of taboo and controversy, often citing inability to correctly drape a sari as an exit point. We are a celebrity-obsessed country, and yes, it does affect consumption patterns and social behaviour at-large. Some consumers are being conditioned to believe that the sari ages women, and you will see the evidence of that clearly documented by so many social media trolls targeting celebrities online. Isn’t that shaming, or shall we call it cyber-bullying? Yet we are often complicit in this, which may even be welcomed by some to encourage more traffic to a website/blog. #Sabyasachi #TheWorldOfSabyasachi

A post shared by Sabyasachi Mukherjee (@sabyasachiofficial) on

And finally, in the last installment of the letter, Sabyasachi pointedly talks about how, contrary to several opinion pieces on the ongoing controversy, his was not a brand steeped in patriarchy. Calling it a humiliation to have to defend himself and his brand on this front, he wrote about how the top-earners across departments at Sabyasachi Couture were women - not because they were women, but because they had worked their way to the top.

"Mine is a women-oriented brand and I owe my complete success to them. I have always, and will continue to love and respect women irrespective of the labels recently assigned to me. It was in this spirit that I started my brand, and that is how it shall remain till the day we decide to shut its doors.

I once again apologise for the distress caused by the words I used, but not for the intent, which often takes a back seat when slammed by controversy. My intent was to call out those women who proudly proclaim that they don't wear saris and simultaneously shame others who wear saris by saying it makes them look older, backward, or culturally repressed."

 

Let’s also talk about another subject that has arisen out of the fervent discussions occurring about me and my brand, and one that has always been a big topic on gender inequality and the patriarchy (which, according to some of you, I am ardently supporting): the pay gap. It is humiliating to have to defend yourself in public but sometimes a bitter medicine needs to be swallowed to drive home a hidden truth. I would like to bring to your notice, that the majority of my staff at Sabyasachi Couture are women. From pattern makers, to seamstresses, to designers, to publicists, to IT consultants, department heads, store managers, and core of management; women comprise the top earners on my payroll – and it is not because they are women, but because they’ve earned it by their merit. And every Friday, men and women alike at Sabyasachi wear Indian clothing to celebrate our love for textiles, with zero enforcement. Mine is a women-oriented brand and I owe my complete success to them. I have always, and will continue to love and respect women irrespective of the labels recently assigned to me. It was in this spirit that I started my brand, and that is how it shall remain till the day we decide to shut its doors. I once again apologise for the distress caused by the words I used, but not for the intent, which often takes a back seat when slammed by controversy. My intent was to call out those women who proudly proclaim that they don’t wear saris and simultaneously shame others who wear saris by saying it makes them look older, backward, or culturally repressed. My social media team takes extreme care that not a single negative comment written by you is censored, so that the world can make their own judgments and have a transparent view of the brand. Tomorrow, you can shame me further on twitter, make provocative headlines out of this letter, or choose to blacklist us as consumers. It is absolutely fair and understandable because it is your prerogative. For us, for better or for worse, it will be business as usual. #Sabyasachi #TheWorldOfSabyasachi

A post shared by Sabyasachi Mukherjee (@sabyasachiofficial) on

There's no doubt about the fact that no matter what the context, Sabyasachi's comments at the conference were thoughtless and did him great disservice as the owner of a brand cherished by so many women across the country, and even the world. Having said that, it is heartening to see that Sabyasachi and his team took the time to reflect upon his words, understand the problem with them and come up with an articulate, humbling apology, instead of defending them stubbornly, which is what often happens, when public personalities are called out for something or the other.

Who among us hasn't wanted to say one thing, but found ourselves fumbling for the right words, and ended up saying something completely contrary to our original intention? It helps when people, especially those in the public eye, have the decency to apologise, when they find themselves on the wrong side of a sexism debate.

While his comments may have irked saree wearers and non-wearers alike, Sabyasachi's letter is sure to resonate with those among us who are fans of the garment. As a young woman who frequently wears sarees, I've often encountered the kind of criticism and judgement Sabyasachi speaks of. Even as I routinely brush off questions and sarcasm over being 'overdressed' and choosing to wear something that makes me look 'older', I know that a whole lot of women my age won't even consider wearing sarees for these precise reasons. As a society, our collective obsession with youth is such that even the slightest perception of 'oldness' is enough to make us go screaming into the woods. It's an unfortunate state of affairs, but it's true.

If only Sabyasachi had addressed the real issue of 'saree-shaming', instead of 'shaming women who don't wear sarees' in the first place, he would have saved us all the heartache of having to criticise the designer whose Instagram page is bookmarked on our devices for our daily dose of drool-worthy traditional fashion. But now that he's apologised, like Sabya says at the end of his open letter, "It's back to business as usual."



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