Rohingya Muslims

Rohingya refugees revel in the new-found right to wear trousers

In camps in Bangladesh, Rohingya men are shedding sarongs and slipping into jeans, now free from restrictive rules imposed on Muslims in Myanmar

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 June, 2018, 3:54pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 June, 2018, 9:50pm

In 28 years, Abdul Aziz had never known the pleasure of wearing trousers.

Rohingya Muslim men like him were restricted to wearing sarongs, or longyis, in Myanmar. It was an unofficial uniform that identified Muslims as inferior, Rohingya refugees said. Wearing trousers outside cities and towns was restricted by local authorities and Rohingya who did so could be arrested and fined.

More than 700,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar and crossed into Bangladesh after a violent military crackdown in August. In the refugee camps, they can wear what they like and the season’s must-have status symbol in these sprawling, squalid camps is trousers.

“Now, I live in a democracy,” Aziz said, “and in democracies, they wear trousers.”

On Saturday, the refugee camps buzzed with excitement for the festival of Eid, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and for which Muslims traditionally buy new clothing. It was a rare day of celebration in a place where frugality is the norm.

Several men, including Aziz, had ditched their longyis and were wearing trousers for the first time. Aziz chose a pair of slim-fit blue jeans, which he wore under a long white shirt.

“I have never, ever owned a pair of trousers in my life,” he said. “Not even shorts.”

He bought his first pair in the local market last week for about US$9 – roughly two days’ earnings in “cash-for-work” programmes run by non-governmental organisations in the camps.

More than half of Myanmar’s Rohingya population now lives in camps in Bangladesh.

People earn money through trade, or through work programmes run by aid organisations. Since arriving here, many have managed to acquire trousers through donated clothing distributed by charities.

About a dozen refugees interviewed in the camps said the ban on trousers happened after bouts of violence in 2012 and 2016. Accounts suggest that the restrictions were imposed informally and to varying degrees by local authorities in villages.

Trousers are associated in Myanmar with Western culture, and are often a signifier of wealth and education. They also connote power – British colonial soldiers were once called “trouser people” in the Myanmar language.

In Myanmar, traditional longyis are worn by all men, not just Muslims – though Buddhist millennials are increasingly seen in Western-influenced garb. But young Rohingya men said that they did not have the same freedom as their Buddhist counterparts to wear trousers in villages.

Matthew Smith, chief executive of Fortify Rights, an organisation that documents human rights violence in Southeast Asia, said he had not heard about the restrictions on trousers.

However, he did say they were part of the uniform of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, armed rebels who are considered terrorists by the Myanmar government.

“At least some militants wore black, and we documented how soldiers beat Rohingya while searching for any black clothing,” he said. “It’s plausible the authorities viewed pants with the same blanket suspicion.”

Refugees said there was never a formal law against wearing trousers but security personnel at checkpoints accused wearers of being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh or terrorists. Government-appointed village administrators also warned Rohingya about being seen wearing trousers in some villages. Those rules were especially enforced in rural Rakhine.

Some rebelled quietly. One man said he wore shorts secretly in his home but could never wear them outside. Another said he had flouted the rules in 2016 and was arrested and fined US$35.

“It was a way of keeping us unequal,” said 15-year-old Sayeed ul-Amin. “It was a way to show that Muslims were lower than others.”

With little hope of returning to Myanmar, many Rohingya are starting to adopt facets of Bangladeshi culture, preparing to settle in a foreign land. A number of young men said they had seen Bangladeshi men wearing trousers and wanted to copy their style.

“I want to learn their culture, and I want to be like them,” Aziz said.

Soiyed Alom, a 73-year-old man wearing a longyi, broke into tears when asked how it felt to see Rohingya men wearing trousers.

“I see all these Bangladeshi men – rich, educated people wear trousers,” he said. “When I see Rohingya people also wearing them, I feel very happy. I’d like to wear them, too.”