Your wedding ‘lehnga’ comes with a legacy of pain and injustice

Your wedding ‘lehnga’ comes with a legacy of pain and injustice

How strange that the central element of a ceremony meant to represent love, should come from a place of human abuse.
Updated 17 Oct, 2015

What can compare to the extravagance of a Pakistani wedding? The endless food, the hundreds of guests, the lavish decorations – it’s an event like no other. Although not Pakistani myself, I observed all of this firsthand at my own desi wedding, thanks to my Pakistani spouse.

Ever since my marriage, I have been reflecting increasingly on materialism and its effects on our world. As I attend more and more weddings, the opulence of these events makes me question the logic and lack of compassion behind consumerism.

Our concerns as consumers only extend to price and aesthetics. The only questions we ask ourselves is, “Do I like it,” and never, “How will this affects others?”

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As individuals, we like to think we care about worker rights and fair trade, but as consumers, we are every ready to drop these concerns for the right price.

Nothing exemplifies this attitude better than the wedding lehnga.

The traditional wedding lehnga is an iconic guilty pleasure, especially for members of the middle and upper classes. There are very few other items that society allows us to spend loads of money on, wear only a few times and never use again.

A lot of thought will go into the colour, design and price of the dress, but little thought goes into the conditions under which this dress would be made.

Beautiful and expensive, the wedding lehnga encapsulates the selfishness of today’s consumerist ideologies.

The reality is that this one special garment comes with a legacy of pain and injustice.

The textile industry boasts a near absence of labour rights. According to Karamat Ali, Executive Director of the well-known Pakistan Institute of Labour Research and Education, 80 per cent of workers in the industry work 12 hours a day or more.

Over 90 per cent of these workers have no formal employment contract, making the source of their livelihood completely precarious. It is not uncommon to see worker homes converted into workspaces at the workers’ expense.

From raw textile to embroidery, every step in a lehnga’s creation hurts people.

First, textile labourers work in factories lacking basic safety protocols and equipment to create and dye the dress’s fabric. They handle dangerous chemicals, often with no protection. As a result, these workers suffer from high levels of respiratory illness.

The fabric is then handed off to dress designers, who employ artisans to complete the dress under objectionable conditions.

Rafia Waraich, who started the fair trade children’s clothing brand, 'Cherished Juniors', recounts her observations on the clothing industry during her time in Lahore:

“If it’s a low-profile designer, they have these artisans working out of their own houses, otherwise they have them at a factory. The conditions these artisans work in are horrendous. Low lighting, tight spaces – almost sweatshop type conditions.

“There are also people who like to get stuff made on their own [without going through a designer]. In that case, the artisans work out of their own shops and charge rates that are suitable and market comparable, but which are still not nearly sufficient [to provide a living wage].”

On top of the fact that fair pay and decent working conditions are not the wedding industry’s standard practice, the societal pressure to enforce these standards is not strong enough.

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How strange that the lehnga, a central element of a ceremony meant to represent love and commitment to higher ideals, should come from a place of human abuse.

It is time that brides and their families start insisting that their dresses be made while upholding the dignity and rights of all the workers along its chain of creation.

How to achieve this change?

We drive the decisions made by all consumer-oriented industries, including the wedding industry.

Support vendors who pay a fair wage and offer safe working conditions to their artisans.

Buy preowned dresses.

Question designers whom you patronise about their practices and demand fairness.

Only when the industry realises that their consumers place justice and human well-being over prices, will practices start to shift.

And it all starts with you.