Indian actress Deepika Padukone at the 71st Cannes Film Festival. (Photo by Loic VENANCE / AFP)

“These days, actresses don’t know what kind of dress they should wear for film events. Should their behavior be taken as an act of innocence? Or do they think that only if they wear revealing outfits will heroes and directors give them opportunities?” So asked famous Indian singer SP Balasubrahmanyam last week.

He sang the popular hit song Dil Deewana from the Bollywood film Maine Pyar Kiya (1989), and has won multiple awards throughout his career. None of which makes it any surprise that the above, widely-quoted comment came from a man.

Think about it: have you ever heard a woman tell a man to button his shirt all the way up because she was offended by his chest hair popping out?

But last year, actress Priyanka Chopra was trolled for wearing a skirt and “revealing” her legs when she met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Berlin. Later, actress Parineeti Chopra was trolled for wearing a “tight” dress.

Indian actress Priyanka Chopra meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Berlin, Germany. Photo: Twitter

Disha Patani was slammed for wearing a “bold” outfit to the Filmfare awards. Sonam Kapoor, Rakhi Sawant, Deepika Padukone, and several other actresses constantly find themselves being told to “respect Indian culture” and “dress decently”. This trend of people playing the morality police with show business professionals who have to maintain a certain image and glamour, reveals something running deeper in Indian society. One thing is clear: men in this country have a problem with everything women do. Or don’t do.

But who are these men who think they have the right to tell women how to dress or how to behave or what to say? It appears that they have assumed the role of moral gatekeepers with the authority to declare what is “good” or “bad”.

One wonders why these men are so offended and why they turn their attention to insulting and trolling actresses. For starters, it is clear that independent women who live life on their own terms threaten some men’s fragile egos. The same men who cannot stand it if their opinion is not sought.

Most Indian men believe they must keep women on a tight leash. They feel they have the right to do so because women embody the “reputations” of their respective families and the morality of a society still in the grip of a patriarchal structure. If even an influential and well-known woman can be bullied into conforming to patriarchal social standards, then this will serve as a sobering reminder to women without so much social capital. Men expect that by setting such an example, they can coerce other women into self-censoring themselves, stopping themselves from wearing or doing certain things because “society” does not approve of it.

Did Priyanka Chopra ask people whether her skirt was ok to wear in front of the PM? She did not. Did actresses at film festivals ask singer Balasubrahmanyam for his opinion on their outfits? Of course not, but he felt entitled to comment anyway.

The most problematic part of this is that he thinks a woman wears what she does to gain something, especially from men. It did not cross his mind that perhaps she was wearing something simply because she wanted to do so. And even if a woman wears whatever she does to achieve something, how is it any of Mr. SP Balasubrahmanyam’s business? The impact inflicted by such comments from men of supposed reputation is enormous. They are capable of influencing mass thinking, normalizing their own attitudinal failings. He and people like him need to be stopped.

They need to realize that a woman’s body is hers, not anybody else’s. She alone has the right to do whatever she may please with it.

Balasubrahmanyam went on to say, “I wouldn’t mind even if my comments anger the heroines. In any case, most of them don’t know Telugu, so they won’t understand my comments.” He said what he wanted to about women and didn’t care to know or understand what women felt about themselves. Isn’t this a perfect case of male privilege?

He ended his comment with a seemingly knowing, “We have reached an all-time low.” Basically, his measure of the film industry’s achievements depends on the length of a woman’s skirt. This type of thinking puts a woman’s body under public scrutiny and prompts people to feel they have the right to assess a person’s character based on what she is wearing.

So yes, we indeed have reached an all-time low. But that is because so many men still think they can completely disregard the right a woman has to her own body. People like Balasubrahmanyam believe that men should control the bodies, minds, and freedoms of women. But as long as women are fighting back, breaking the glass ceiling in every possible field, and wearing whatever they please, it will be forever hard for the moral police to win.

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