Millennium Post

Let me dress the way I want to!

All it takes is the bogey of a rising hemline or shedding the all concealing drape to cover up a rising sickness in society. That is just what Delhi’s chief minister Sheila Dikshit, National Commission for Women chairperson Mamta Sharma, Madhya Pradesh industries minister Kailash Vijayvargiya, senior officials like the DGP of Andhra Pradesh and many others across political parties, bureaucracy and do-good outfits have attempted. All of them in the recent past have held ‘indecent’ or ‘inappropriate’ dressing by girls as an invitation for suggestive staring, lewd comments, groping and even rape. The fine print of their statements reads that victims of sexual harassment and crime have brought it upon themselves by wearing ‘provocative’ clothes. Their suggestion: Dress ‘decently’ to protect yourself from men’s primitive biological urges. If women don’t, they hand men the licence to let their libido go in buses, metros, malls, trains, pubs, streets, hospitals, police stations, offices, schools, institutions for the mentally challenged and of course in the cramped space of a taxi or in the darkness of a lonely spot.

For aeons, women have been told how they should dress in public so that men are not aroused to do what they should not be doing in a civilised society anyway. Religious tomes and religious leaders have underlined a dress code for women, be it the Bible, the Koran or well as the high priests of Hindu temples. It is how a woman dresses that will decide if she is a good Christian, a devout Muslim or a God fearing Hindu. According to Samuele Bacchiocchi a research scholar at Andrews University writing on ‘Christian Dress and Adornment’ says that Biblical and Christian history calls to dress modestly and decently. He goes on to explain that ‘clothes and appearances are most nonverbal communicators not only of our socioeconomic status but also of our moral values’. The
too lays down a dress code for women though the exact form or extent of the veil is debated by believers. Priests of ancient Hindu temples have said a firm ‘No’ to skirts and jeans for women devotees who come to the doorstep of their God. To communicate with the creator a sari is a must. Salwar kurta is now a concession offered.

The modern day preachers of ‘respectable dressing by women’, spread across the world, appear to be arch supporters of the archaic adage ‘we are what we wear’. They obviously continue to apply a stereotype to women. What else is one to make of French housing minister Cecile Duflot facing wolf whistles from male MPs as she rose to make a speech in Parliament just a week back. Her crime? The minister came to parliament wearing a floral kneelength dress and high heels. That, according to the parliamentarians, was worn to distract them from her speech and therefore not appropriate apparel for the august occasion. Who should one sympathise with?  How can one not help but feel sorry for the fragile attention span of Cecile’s mature political colleagues that goes berserk with a little bit of skin show and flowery patterns on a dress and heeled footwear!

‘Women should avoid dressing like sluts to save themselves from being victimised sexually’ advised Toronto police official, constable Michael Sanguinetti while participating in a discussion on prevention of sex related crimes in his area. Does not sound very different from what the DGP of Andhra Pradesh said last year, while reeling out figures revealing a rise in eve teasing and rape. Provocative dressing increases the chance of rape he stated. Madhya Pradesh minister Vijayvargiya’s comments, post the July gang molestation of a girl caught on camera as she came out of a bar in Dispur Assam was also on similar lines. ‘…women are dressing provocatively which is leading to deviation in society…fashion, lifestyle and conduct should be in accordance with Indian culture’.

Not to be outdone NCW chief Sharma, whose prime duty is to protect the right of women and fight to get them justice, went public with her note of caution for girls. ‘(They) should be careful about the way they dress’. This is the second time since she took over that Sharma has offered this as a solution to sexual assault on women either in verbal or physical form.

As Delhi earned the unflattering sobriquet of ‘rape capital’, Dikshit too drew attention to the way girls in the city were dressing and not exercising enough caution while stepping out alone. In Shanghai, China, the message was directed to women. The city metros displayed posters showing a girl in a see through dress with the caption ‘please be self dignified to avoid perverts’.

Stuff like this has made feminists see red. And rightly so. The woman of today has rejected the idea of giving up her freedom to dress as she chooses so that men don’t get provoked into insane action. Dressing as one feels like is for present day women more than a style statement. It is a message to the world, an assertion of her individuality and freedom. That is why the protest against Shanghai posters saw women draped in black head to toe robes carrying placards reading ‘I can be flirtatious but you can’t harass’. Got Stared At, an on-line campaign started in Delhi recently is flooded with experiences, often with photographs of victims in clothes they were wearing when they were made targets of lewd comments, unwelcome touching and groping and indecent proposals by men.

The accompanying statements are even more telling. Sample: ‘You raped her because her clothes provoked you? I should break your face because your stupidity provokes me’. Another one reads: ‘I don’t want to change the way I dress. I want to change the way men in our society look at us’.

The campaigners of ‘decent and appropriate’ dressing need to answer some pertinent questions. Who is to define what is ‘decent’? Often it is seen that what is accepted as decent by one may not be so for another. Also it differs from culture to culture. Do these people really understand the fine distinction between decent and appropriate attire? Do men think that women do not know the difference between beach wear and an ensemble for a state banquet, office wear and casual wear? Should women wear protective armor [maybe a tent] to shield themselves from sexual assault or should they stop going out to work, shop or entertainment so that the men can be saved from committing criminal acts? Should women forcefully disrobe a man if they find his clothes offensive or how about snipping off his skin tight low rise jeans that display his red underwear?

If indecent dressing is the real culprit how does one explain teasing, molestation, rape of girls in school uniforms, children only some months or a couple of years old and the differently-abled.
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