One of the most humiliating questions that the police in India routinely ask a molested woman or girl is whether she had dressed provocatively. And provocation may well lie in the eyes of the beholder. What may seem titillating to one may be just beautiful to another.
So when a popular and well regarded Tamil (a southern Indian language) weekly magazine Kumudam said in a recent cover story that leggings were vulgar and women wearing them were immoral, it caused a social storm.
In an interview to the media, Kumudam editor G. Gubendran justified the article by saying that it was a topical issue, particularly after a government-run medical college had asked its first-year girl students not to wear leggings.
“Such directives exist in private engineering colleges, but when a government college sought to enforce such a ban, we intended to explore the case. The write-up gives the pros and cons, and differing views,” he said. “We have no intention to insult anyone…We were merely trying to create an awareness of a social issue”.
But Gubendran’s explanation seemed like a joke, and the social media was highly critical of Kumudam. What was even more resented than the write-up itself was the cover picture, which was undoubtedly vulgar, even downright obscene.
A member of parliament from Tamil Nadu, Kanimozhi, regretted the objectification of women. But Khushboo, a movie star and Congress leader who lives in Chennai, added a note of caution when she averred that women must be careful about what they wear lest they attract unwanted male attention or “male gaze”, as sociologists will describe it.
In other words, women and their characters are invariably judged by how they dress, and more often than not their clothes seem to be the yardstick to evaluate their moral standards.
Strangely, while leggings and jeans — which actually cover a woman’s legs completely — have been under the scanner, the sari, which, many will agree, is a far more sexy attire, has seldom faced ostracism.
Some months ago, colleges in the central Indian state of Uttar Pradesh forbade girls from sporting jeans and other forms of western wear. This was purportedly to stop eve teasing and a more serious crime like rape.
“Girls who choose to wear jeans will be expelled from the institution,” Meeta Jamal, principal of the Dayanand Girls’ College, in Kanpur had said. “This is the only way to stop crime against women.”
Many other colleges in Uttar Pradesh followed suit by banning jeans, shorts, skirts and tight tops on their campuses.
All this appears to be part of a conservatism that is creeping over India. Apart from the dress code that women are being subjected to, they have been facing other kinds of social agony. If they are brutalised when seen in pubs (as it happened in Mangalore, a city in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, some time ago), they are also penalised for being in male company.
A far more terrifying form of social suffocation is honour killing. Sometimes, a girl is murdered when she elopes with her lover to get married. Her family — opposed to the union on grounds of caste or religion — invariably perpetrates this heinous crime.
The latest edict on dress and the Kumudam feature are mere symptoms of this dangerous social intolerance, which appears to be taking multiple forms. Leggings are the latest to hang from this punishment post.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.
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