Neither Ghunghat, Nor Hijab: Collar, Not Noose

Neither Ghunghat, Nor Hijab: Collar, Not Noose

Thoughts on ordinary women’s lives: no extreme censure yet always on high alert for inescapable dress code stalkers 

Predictably perhaps, The Voice of Fashion sets out to publish a short, three-day series of stories on everyday lives around dress codes imposed on women. It is March 8, International Women’s Day, pièce de résistance of the Women’s History Month. Nebulous as it often is, we (the women of the world) are wired to celebrate this day with memos of liberation. The posse of freedoms that The Senior Sisterhood fought for, won and handed over to us—of opinion, manner, of choice.

Of wearing our gender the way we want to.

Yet, often there is an inverse reason to mark this day as well. Our strides are almost always criss-crossed by a loss. This year it is India’s “Hijab controversy”. Cryptic recall words, they put us back into the “who decides what we wear” saddle. And, while the many protests, legal and intellectual debates may ostensibly be about education, religion and politics or the inherent democracy of school and college uniforms, they symbolise the clamp that women live with. In collective and individual lives. A majority of ordinary women like you and me are not confined to the ghunghat, raped as punishment for wearing jeans, humiliated for being “Western” in our clothes, ostracised because we rebelled against a patriarchal or religious idea of dressing ‘right’, but we do have a collar around our necks. It’s not a noose, yet it restrains us.


A demonstration to denounce the banning of hijab in classrooms in few of Karnataka’s educational institutes, in Chennai on February 14, 2022.
Arun Shankar/AFP

Yesterday, I asked the TVOF team to share their personal experiences about moral policing in their lives, when it came to dress, appearance and manner. Consider the diversity of their experiences. It stands for my Collar Not Noose argument. One gets her hair bangs cut off by a school teacher because they were “too long” and fell on her forehead. She is then made to stand in front of the class and made an example of. Another is asked to wear her dupatta like a hijab for a month and more, as a form of ragging newbies in college. Yet another is asked to go back home by the bank she works at because she has arrived in an “Indian ethnic dress”—the code for bank employees being smart, corporate (read Western) clothes. Other incidents tumble out. Inside homes, outside on the streets.

Dress codes—or what is right and wrong in the way we wear our lives stalk us in covert or blatant ways—but they are inescapable. Across class and community.

My housekeeper Purnima Sarkar, 34, who usually wears salwar sets and sometimes palazzo-kurtas, suddenly started appearing in clumsily draped synthetic saris a week or so ago. I noticed her dragging her sari pleats and probed. “My husband’s uncle has come visiting from the village and I am expected to only wear saris and even cover my head when I am at home,” she said, her face cold. A migrant worker from the Malda district of West Bengal, one of the many reasons Purnima says she likes her life in Noida, the chawl life in the Nithari neighbourhood, is because she can wear what she wants and eat paan without reporting to a patriarchal boss in her life. Her husband has been demoted from boss status as she earns more than him. Black nail polish on her feet, a tattoo on her arm accessorise her style on her WhatsApp photos. Banned now for a month from being city-smart, she is sulking.


Most women are impacted by dress codes in different ways.

You may find me ranting like a privileged female writer who has earned her freedom and so she sits on a chair and writes editorials on the Collar, Not Noose in other lives. No, no. The earning freedom bit is right though. In my former marriage, that ended through mutual consent and an amicable separation 20 years ago, my ex mother-in-law often passed derisive comments on my sleeveless sari blouses. She would associate the “shallowness” of my “character” with the depth of the blouse’s cut at the back—they were somehow directly proportional, thanks to the tailor’s skill. She mocked at my then job with the Cosmopolitan magazine (because it wrote about sex and glorified women in short black dresses) and reminded me about all things “good women” do. This included being “medium” at work and in dress—medium was her word to avoid unnecessary attention. I argued, rebelled, turned a deaf ear. Wore my sense of self to work and to lounge at home. The fact is, I still find it problematic that she noticed the sleeve length of my blouses, seldom my work as a journalist.

Long after the cows come home, dusk darkens memories, the Stoics have been read, feminist literature bookmarked, analytical pieces on sexism contextualised through psychotherapy or fashion shapes new thoughts, you continue to bristle. About who decides what women wear. The Collar, Not Noose is still there in some form. In my case it is a memory, a phantom limb. Across The Sisterhood, even if we keep aside the complex, defeating, demonising realities of those punished, restricted for dress or undress, life in the middle, without the ghunghat or the hijab reminds us that we are women.


Dress codes—or what is right and wrong in the way we wear our lives stalk us in covert or blatant ways—but they are inescapable.

Many continue to struggle with what wearing one’s identity means even after defeating socio-cultural ‘norms’.

This short series that starts today fusses around that question—who decides what we wear. Ektaa Malik hosts a roundtable with three fashion designers seeking their views while asking them to notice if the fashion industry judges women in certain ways or creates clothes from a male point of view. Sohini Dey writes on the similarities between the Hijab and other dress codes arguing why despite being used to police women, they can sometimes be liberating. Paramita Ghosh brings you a timeline of cases when dress codes have become controversies. I have a video interview with brilliant author and charming conversationalist Shrayana Bhattacharya, a World Bank economist whose recent book Desperately Seeking Shahrukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence brings several realities of women’s lives out of the closet.

I want to quote from Shelja Sen’s powerful essay, Just Girls: Conversations on Resistance, Social Justice and Mental Health Struggles of Women. While reminding us of the “exquisite and powerful stories in India of women who have led social movements including Justice for Nirbhaya, Narmada Bachao Andolan, Pinjra Tod, Besharam Morcha and Shaheen Bagh”, Sen, a Delhi-based narrative therapist uses the Courage Map—a psychotherapeutic matrix—to present two case studies. Her aim is to “make social injustices visible, turn the gaze back on normalising judgements.” One of these is about 14-year-old Rhea from a little town who meets Sen for “anger management” and “treatment of behavioural problems”. Rhea had shared with Sen that when she complained to her school principal about a boy in her school sending WhatsApp messages with graphic comments on her body, the principal told her that maybe she “brought it upon herself” by leaving the top buttons of her T-shirt open. In no time, the “juicy rumour” makes it to social media and Rhea is labelled a besharam (shameless) slut. This part of the social script is familiar to us Collar, Not Noose women.


We seek to find our way on to the ‘Courage Map.’
Punit Paranjpe / AFP

But the rest (untold here) is what brings Rhea onto Sen’s Courage Map.

It is finding our place on this map that we seek this year through our Women’s Day stories. So that we can, in the words of Amia Srinivasan, author of The Right To Sex, (Bloomsbury 2021) “substitute individual personal transformation for collective political transfiguration.”


Banner: Students of a government college arrive at an educational institute in Davanagere district in Karnataka on February 16, 2022, after schools reopened in South India under tight security after authorities banned public gatherings following protests over the wearing of hijab in classrooms. Photo by AFP