Sunday, 14 September 2014

Made in Bangladesh?

[This will be a long post, please bear with me]

This is what it says beneath the picture:

She is a merchandiser who has been with American Apparel since 2010. Born in Dhaka, the capitol of Bangladesh, Maks vividly remembers attending mosque as a child alongside her conservative Muslim parents. At age four, her family made a life-changing move to Marina Del Rey, California. Although she suddenly found herself a world away from Dhaka, she continued following her parent's religious traditions and sustained her Islamic faith throughout her childhood. Upon entering high school, Maks began to feel the need to forge her own identity and ultimately distanced herself from Islamic traditions. A woman continuously in search of new creative outlets, Maks unreservedly embraced this photo shoot.She has found some elements of Southern California culture to be immediately appealing, but is striving to explore what lies beyond the city's superficial pleasures. She doesn't feel the need to identify herself as an American or a Bengali and is not content to fit her life into anyone else's conventional narrative. That's what makes her essential to the mosaic that is Los Angeles, and unequivocally, a distinct figure in the ever-expanding American Apparel family. Maks was photographed in the High Waist Jean, a garment manufactured by 23 skilled American workers in Downtown Los Angeles, all of whom are paid a fair wage and have access to basic benefits such as healthcare.

I am a 25 year old Bangladeshi born girl now living in Ottawa, Canada. I also like to think of myself as in individual with my own identity and sense of expression. Since coming to Canada, my views about this world and its people has expanded much more. I have had the good luck of meeting various people who has opened my eyes towards many different directions [feminism, women's body, rape jokes, homosexuality, being religious, being non-religious etc.] and I really feel better about it.

But my thought on seeing this ad could be summarized in just three letter: WTF?

I am very much proud of where I come from. And because I have grown up in Dhaka, Bangladesh, unlike my western counterparts I am much more familiar with the system and lifestyle of Bangladesh, as well as the many various problems associated with my country. Which is why I am all the more unhappy with this ad, and what it seems to/supposed to convey to people.
She doesn't feel the need to identify herself as an American or a Bengali and is not content to fit her life into anyone else's conventional narrative.
Question: If (according to the AA ad caption) she doesn't identify herself as Bengali why in the world are the words "Made in Bangladesh" splayed across her breasts? Don't borrow the name of the country who's heritage is willingly thrown aside by the individual.

Speaking of which, I found it funny how people in general (men, in most cases) were quick to the rescue of the nude girl by saying well known overly used phrases such as "she agreed to do it/ she has the right of expressing herself/ the female form is celebrated here" etc. But how come when there are pictures of hijabi women I don't find anyone saying such similar phrases? (for that matter, why are there so little pictures of happy hijabi women on the Internet? My mum wears the hijab. Wait, *yelling* Ammu, are you oppressed? *too busy playing Scrabble to answer my question*)

Jokes aside, I have always been a little uncomfortable with most American Apparel ads. But this seemed downright rude and inconsiderate. If this was a jab at the garment factories in Bangladesh then, I'm sorry to say, it wasn't a good one. Neither does it convey any clear cut messages about our garment industry. And for the record, the garments industry grew up mostly on the bent-over-backs of hardworking women, so the message seems disrespectful towards them. In today's hectic life, no one has time or patience to read all the fine print beneath the picture. They will just have one look at the picture. All that need to forge her own identity and a woman continuously in search of new creative outlets crap doesn't really go deep into people's heads because, boobs!

My friend Lia (I hope I got the spelling right! Apologies if I didn't) said:
"I can see the offense, and it doesn't even involve my identities. Perhaps (if I may) a large part of the issue is that Muslim and Bengali women are so few and far between that the few we see are basically made to represent a huge, diverse population. If this was a white, Christian woman, I strongly doubt that so many people would have thoughts like, "This woman is representing white, Christian women badly," because white women are everywhere. I'd love to see much more diversity in representation, so that a few people aren't seen as representatives of everyone who looks like them."
Finally! Someone understands. While researching, I came across many comments where people were saying that this photo shoot was her choice, and she should be free to have her picture taken whichever way she likes. I agree that if this was just her picture, I probably wouldn't have been as much upset. I would have just frowned and just moved along. And yes, if this was a white woman, I would just glanced at it without having any thoughts because I see white women everywhere and I know that just this one picture does not represent them. 

But the truth of the matter is that Bangladeshi women are not always photographed. When they are, its always around some very particular scenarios. For example, in my 5 years of living in Canada, only once did I come across a new piece on Bangladesh on the free newspapers at the bus stops. It was about how it has become so hot in Bangladesh that people were selling hand fans which were used to stay cool in the heat. [For those who wish to know about our hand fans, click here.]

The way it was portrayed, seemed to me as if there were no other ways to keep cool in the heat other than this primitive way. Yes, we have blackouts for long periods where this primitive way becomes the only way to stay cool (sometimes) but we are not so poor that we can't afford other means. Alas, even if if I were to know this, it is not possible that everyone else will, especially those who live on the other side of the world, far away from South Asia. 

Sorry if I rambled off topic too much, but the point I am trying to make is that pictures are representations. And when there are very little portrayals of a certain group of people, pictures should be taken carefully lest they give off the wrong impression. That's how I felt after seeing the picture of Maks taken by AA. The words "Made in Bangladesh" convey a lot of deep meaning. It stands as a phrase representative of our cultural heritage. Notice that I did not bring Islam into this post because Bangladesh has people of various faiths living here. I highly doubt that any other Hindu, Buddhist or Christian women who live in Bangladesh would agree with this caption, because that is not who we are. Yes, many women here wear sleeveless clothes, I have seen girls in shorts and mini skirt, but most of us draw a line when it comes to full frontal nudity. That is not who we are or how we would like the world to see us, and If AA is going to stamp "Made in Bangladesh" on a picture then they better not misrepresent a whole nation because one girl decided to forgo her childhood identity.

AA had this to say about their ad:
"Like a lot of our ads, it has multiple meanings. The 'Made in Bangladesh' headline refers to the origin of the model as well as an issue of critical importance in the fashion industry. In regard to Maks, she is an independent young woman who is forging her own path regardless of what may be culturally expected of her. We believe all women should be able to decide how to live their lives and have the freedom to express themselves......In addition to physically unsafe conditions, Bangladesh has some of the lowest paid garment workers in the world. The recently increased monthly wage is still only $68 USD per month. American Apparel’s nearly 5,000 industrial workers in Los Angeles are earning from $10- $25 per hour. It is important for consumers to think about the people that we don’t see when looking at fashion photography." 
[According to AA] the "Made in Bangladesh" ad was not meant to objectify women, but to celebrate them.
Thank you for your long words, AA. But this doesn't look like a celebration of all women, because not all women of Bangladeshi origin may want to be celebrated in the way you decided to celebrate Maks. And again, if this was just Maks, I wouldn't mind, but the moment you put my country's name on her she (unknowingly and unwillingly) becomes a face of representation for Bangladesh (which, to remind people again, she doesn't identify with). So, no, under no circumstances does this ad make me feel powerful about myself or most other Bangladeshi women.

And as for our garments industry, yes there are many, many safety issues regarding the workplace, and wages are not too high. But people, especially WOMEN depend on that money. Their bills are paid using that money. If, by making this ad, you are trying to make people boycott clothes made in Bangladesh, then do us a favor and don't. You are not helping. If anything, you are ENDANGERING those women's livelihood. I know about all the incidents that had happened in Bangladesh regarding poor safety conditions of the buildings where they work. I was mad with grief and angry with those who didn't make these buildings safe. But I will still buy clothes that are made in Bangladesh because it makes me feel happy knowing somehow, I am helping those who actually need it. By indirectly asking people to boycott clothes made in my country, you are DIRECTLY being RESPONSIBLE for HARMING the very WOMEN who you wish to celebrate. Please, just don't.

Which leads me to a very funny hypocritical situation that your ad presents to me: if your clothes are made in Los Angeles, then why the hell are you saying "Made in Bangladesh" in your ad? 'What' exactly in your ad is made in Bangladesh? Nothing but the nude girl. And assuming that your ad is meant to sell something, and seeing as those jeans that you can hardly see the girl wearing are not made in my country, it means you are selling the girl that is made in Bangladesh. Hmm, sounds pornographic much?

Unfortunately my internet browser is being silly by not letting me read the Bangla letters properly, so I'm not fully sure what the name of the person is. But I would like to end my post with the parting words from the comment this person made, which I think nails the whole argument perfectly.

"If you wish to sell your glamour, please do so without maligning my motherland." 


  1. I'm with 200%, Arshie. Very,very well written. These Americans are doing nothing but defaming our country by projecting wrong ideas. This girl has no right to use the name of Bangladesh if she doesn't identify herself with the country.

  2. I agree, if she doesn't want to identify herself as a Bangladeshi, then what's with the ''made in Bangladesh'' caption? Bullshit!