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November 18, 2017
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Painted flowers on a rida skirt. Source: Rashida Arsiwala.

To simply describe the "rida" as the religious attire of the women of the Islamic Dawoodi Bohra community would not do it justice. Essentially a two-piece garment, the rida is the formal religious attire for Bohra women. While in years gone by, the rida gained popularity due to its propagation by the religion's leader, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, it would appear that in recent years, more and more women are wearing the rida knowing that it won't sacrifice their style.

Often, religious attire is seen as binding and restrictive, not allowing the wearer to express him or herself freely. However, the human mind is creative and it often finds ways around such obstacles, as is the case with the rida. 

Colourful ridas. Source: openthemagazine.com.

The rida is made of two separates. The top (called the pardi) is a flowing garment with an attached headpiece; it doesn't cover the face like a traditional burqa, but a flap attached to the pardi may be used to do so, if desired. The bottom is a flowing skirt made with heavy material and is cinched at the waist. 

In comparison, the early prototype of the rida was a simple, unassuming garment. In fact, the rida that the world knows today only came about in the 1970s. Until then, women from the Bohra community wore burqas that covered the face, leaving only a small mesh opening in front of the eyes. But, in 1973, orthodox versus reformist group clashes occurred within the Bohra community. Following this, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin made the wearing of the rida compulsory, as a mark of distinction from the reformist group. The announcement came suddenly and women had to hastily bring out their colourful saris and dress materials and stitch them overnight into the colourful ensemble that was the rida. Today, the result of an emergency has become a symbol of identity.

The seeds of "variety" were thus sown. Over the years, women wishing to follow religious customs, while still maintaining their individuality, took to changing the original design to suit their tastes. Subtle changes started being made to the rida, such as adding more colour, incorporating machine and/or hand embroidery, crochet and hand painting.

The announcement came suddenly and the women had to hastily bring out their colourful saris and dress materials and stitch them overnight into the colourful ensemble that was the rida. Today, the result of an emergency has become a symbol of identity.

The rida affects not just the women who wear it, but also those who stitch and design it - like Kishore Champak and his two sons who started out tailoring ridas in a small shop in the Girgaum area of South Mumbai over 30 years ago. Initially they made a slew of garments in addition to the rida, such as saris and blouses. But soon, their rida business began to take up all their time and they now operate out of two shops, only stitching ridas.

Besides the tailors, even artisans have made a business out of designing ridas in new and innovative ways. Eknath Ekwade, a machine embroidery artist located in the Crawford Market area of South Mumbai, started 15 years ago by taking orders for ridas and operated out of a rented space. He's become so famous that he now owns a workshop and doesn't even take orders anymore; he designs his own ridas and sells only those.

There is also Lalitbhai, who was in the rida painting business for close to 40 years, until he retired recently. However, all his workers, whom he trained at his Tardeo workshop in South Mumbai, are earning their livelihoods painting ridas.

Besides the livelihood it provides, the most significant fact about the rida is its importance to Bohra women. Other than new designs, women nowadays are also trying to find new ways to modify the very structure of the garment to suit their tastes. For instance, in the begining, the rida was a simple, flowy attire, whereas now, Bohra women - especially the younger girls - opt for ridas with A-line skirts. Some even wear skirts that are tight at the hips and then become looser towards the bottom, thus resulting in a fish tail-shape. Another recent trend is that of "separates"; these are ridas in which the top is a different colour and/or design than the bottom. The two pieces, however, do have some contrast by which they match. 

Dawoodi Bohra ridas
Detailing on a rida.
Photograph by Rashida Arsiwala.

One might think that the rida offers little opportunity to wear jewellery or other accessories, however, this is not the case. Brooches, bracelets, bangles and hair pins all find their way onto a Bohra woman's dressing table, thereby providing ample opportunity to present themselves more artistically. 

While there are many supporters of the rida and the growing trend of "designer" ridas, there are also some detractors - most of them from within the Bohra community. Their main complaint is that the rida has lost track of its very purpose: to protect a woman's modesty (from unwanted male attention). They argue that a garment so colourful and sometimes designed so to show off a woman's figure, defies its purpose. 

It's a topic of heated debate, but the fact remains: women from the Bohra community are willingly accepting the rida because they know that while adhering to religious mores, they are still able to express their personal style. For some, like Mrs. Sakina Attarwala, it is more than just religious attire. "I feel uncomfortable when I'm not wearing the rida. It provides a sense of security to me," she says.

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