Fighting Battles Won


Fighting Battles Won

New Delhi : Between the ghunghat and the garter belt live six-and-half decades of India’s tryst with giddy social transition. A few dozen transitions actually. During this time, every nuance of freedom has been questioned, fractured then rebuilt and nurtured again. As massive building blocks of identity, class, gender and the oh-so-fatiguing bullfight of tradition with modernity get shifted around us, freedom to dress continues to exclude free-spiritedness and freedom of choice. At least for women. Sari not good at a pub, micro mini not good at the subzi mandi. “Western culture” punishable by molestation but applause for Sunny Leone holding a press conference in a bedroom. It’s been 65 years since Independence and as many arguments now reel inside a “modern urban Indian woman’s” mind. What does freedom to dress really mean? Does anybody have a meaningful answer to this increasingly perplexing question?

NCW’s (National Commission for Women) chief Mamta Sharma certainly does not. Among recent offenders of rationality, I hold her most responsible. Some months ago when she asserted at a conference in Jaipur that “sexy” was not a bad word for women as it meant “beautiful” and “charming”, she expected “progressive” women to support her. I did not. Not because I love the word sexy any less than Sharma but because of her misplaced context. Sexiness — like a sari in a temple, a bikini at a beach or a garter belt for a bedroom romp is about context. Sharma soon turned around and said, “After 65 years of freedom, it is not right to give blanket directions… and say don’t wear this or don’t wear that. Be comfortable, but at the same time, be careful about how you dress… Aping the West blindly is eroding our culture and causing such crimes to happen.”

Deja vu, madam. We’ve been there, done that: aped the West (with help from numerous mass brands who sell western wear and roughly 200 Indian designers who also make western wear), eroded our culture, sent out pink chaddis to Pramod Muthalik of Shri Ram Sena, stood up for Farah Aziz of Aligarh Muslim University when she was assaulted in 2006 for not wearing a dupatta, gone hammer and tongs against college principals who disallow young girls to wear jeans because they distract professors at work, we even walked the Slut Walk.

But are we free? No.

The more we crib, rant and fight against this assorted morality police which periodically and belligerently reprimands us on our choice of dress, the less free we become. Never mind, if we are free to wear a bikini to a bachelorette party and cut a penis-shaped cake. In the current politics of opinion around what’s appropriate dressing for women, both the bikini and the fuddy-duddy salwar kameez have become morally downsizing garments. They do not help any self-realisation and extend the same level of uncertainty. Is this right? Or is that wrong? Revealing and covering have become equally bothersome dressing games. For those who aren’t “allowed” to wear what they want, it is bad enough anyway; but it’s worse for those who are ostensibly free to wear what they want — as the baggage on our collective female consciousness is becoming heavier by the day.

I hope you read me as confused and frustrated. That’s exactly how I feel. Freedom to dress is a compelling contemporary thought for women who are also exploring other freedoms of identity, gender, sexuality, beauty, skin colour and career. It is a pro-choice word, empowering in imagination and looks lovely on paper.

But, “Appropriate, careful dressing” — what do these words really mean? Is a 15-year-old girl in a clingy sari appropriately dressed or is she sending out signals of premature sexuality? Is a 50-year-old woman with cellulite on her knees appropriately dressed in a short dress or should she mind her age? Is it okay if the panty line shows through a trouser, can we wear cycling shorts to the gurudwara? Can you ask your male boss if your new transparent bra strap looks good when it peeps out? The answers to all of these would be a rational no, whoever answers it. Which also means that dressing has a context that is clear and like seasons, all of us imbibe and reflect it in what we wear, and where.

Yet what the Muthaliks, the Sharmas and the new and wounded by change have done is to regress us to the entry point of feminism. We have to fight some battles all over again despite having won them. And start from Argument A: years ago, Bhanwari Devi was gang raped by upper class goons even though she wore a ghunghat.