In 28 years, Abdul Aziz had never known the pleasure of wearing pants.
Rohingya Muslim men like him were restricted to wearing traditional sarongs, or longyis, in their native Myanmar. It was an unofficial uniform that identified Muslims as inferior, Rohingya refugees said. Wearing pants, 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, also known as Burma, and crossed into Bangladesh after a violent military crackdown in August. In the refugee camps, they can choose to wear what they like. And the season’s must-have status symbol in these sprawling, squalid camps is pants.
“Now, I live in a democracy,” Aziz said, “and in democracies, they wear pants.”
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 pants 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 pants in my life,” he said. “Not even shorts.” He bought his first pair in the local market last week for about $9 — roughly two days’ earnings in “cash-for-work” programs run by nongovernmental organizations in the camps.
More than half of Myanmar’s Rohingya population now lives in camps in Bangladesh. Refugees who have fled Myanmar since the violence surged in August tell stories of seeing women raped, men lined up and shot, villages burned. A senior United Nations official has described it as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The Myanmar government has denied the accusations of atrocities.
In the past 10 months, the influx has led to a process of rapid urbanization on the hills of southern Bangladesh. The camps are now essentially a city — with shops and thriving commerce. People earn money through trade, or through work programs run by aid organizations. Since arriving here, many have managed to acquire pants through donated clothing, which is regularly distributed by charities.
About a dozen refugees interviewed in the camps said that the ban on pants 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.
Pants 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 pants in villages.
Matthew Smith, chief executive of Fortify Rights, an organization that documents human rights violence in Southeast Asia, said that he had not heard of the specific restrictions on pants but that the refugees’ accounts were believable.
He said pants 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.”
Rohingya faced several restrictions in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, including on marriage, childbirth or even making repairs to their homes. Cellphones, sunglasses, motorcycles, anything suggestive of wealth or high status could also get Rohingya fined, arrested or beaten.
Refugees said that there was never a formal law against wearing pants but that security personnel at checkpoints accused wearers of being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, or of being terrorists. Government-appointed village administrators also warned Rohingya about being seen wearing pants 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 $35.
“It was a way of keeping us unequal,” said 15-year-old Sayeed ul-Amin. Several others who had gathered around him voiced agreement. “It was a way to show that Muslims were lower than others.”
Wearing pants in the camps is also a form of cultural assimilation. 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 pants and wanted to copy their style.
“I want to learn their culture, and I want to be like them,” Aziz said.
Though many Rohingya had hoped to return to Myanmar after last year’s exodus, a plan for repatriation has been stalled because the Myanmar government has not agreed to meet Rohingya demands for equal citizenship or satisfactory assurances of human rights. The U.N. Refugee Agency has said that “conditions in Myanmar are not yet conducive for returns to be safe, dignified and sustainable.”
In these circumstances, wearing pants is a matter of pride. Soiyed Alom, a 73-year-old man wearing a longyi, broke into tears when asked how it felt to see Rohingya men wearing pants.
“I see all these Bangladeshi men — rich, educated people wear pants,” he said. “When I see Rohingya people also wearing them, I feel very happy. I’d like to wear them, too.”