In recent years, panchayats have come under attack for their mostly unsuccessful attempts at restraining young women from excessive use of mobile phones and from wearing “provocative” western outfits. We have witnessed outraged TV anchors and their panelists emote passionately against such “Talibani diktats”. We are told the idea of dress codes is oppressive, is anti-freedom. On the surface it sounds reasonable that each person should have the freedom to wear clothes of their choice. I for one would never justify the use of violence or coercive means to ‘discipline’ individuals.
But those who pontificate about individual freedom for others are rattled when you extend the same logic to their own lives.
For example, is it a coincidence that all male television anchors — whether in English or regional channels — dress alike in western outfits: a full-sleeved high-collar shirt underneath a full-sleeved coat and a tie to complete the brown sahib stylistic statement? Since they are not subservient to any “Talibani diktat”, I would like to know which master computer has programmed this dress code for male anchors. Why is it that none of them dares to come in a dhoti, or kurta pajama, a half-sleeved bandi or even T-shirts?
Female news anchors may have moved on from the days when a saree was considered a mandatory outfit for them. But most have adopted corporate suits, never topless gowns, halter-neck blouses, and dresses with plunging necklines or mini-skirts. Those dresses are reserved for women anchoring entertainment shows. A woman news anchor may go wearing a backless choli-ghaghra to a late-night party, but she wouldn’t be allowed to host a serious talk show in such an outfit. Every profession, every institution has a written or unwritten dress code, not just in India but all over the world. But our self-styled reformers protest selectively against some. And their choices are revealing.
For example, in post-Independence India, we continued with the dress code imposed on young girls by elite English medium and convent schools with such pride and commitment that skirts and tunics were adopted even by ordinary private and government schools as their dress code.
Having studied in one such convent school where no other dress was permitted, I can say with conviction that a skirt is the most inhibiting dress for a growing girl, especially if you are studying in a co-ed school. You have to be forever watchful about positioning your legs in a ‘lady-like’ manner so that you don’t reveal your undergarments or your thighs. When you are in the playground, you dread a fall not only for the bodily hurt but more for the embarrassment of your skirt flying high and revealing your guarded secrets. Moreover, in the winter months, wearing a skirt is a real torture. But, even hill schools insist on skirts during the winter months.
A few elite schools have adopted pants, but if you ask for the freedom to wear salwar-kameez in those schools, you will be told that such ‘behenji’ outfits are not tolerated. Why do we ignore that this too amounts to cultural enslavement and denial of free choice for women?
It puzzles me that over six decades after Independence, nobody feels offended at the dress code introduced for judges and lawyers by our colonial rulers being dutifully followed by our legal fraternity. The heavy black gown with a necktie not only constitutes an aesthetic assault but is a nuisance during summer. Would a lawyer become less competent if he wore a kurta-pajama? Similarly policewomen are expected to wear tight khaki pants with belts that are inconvenient during pregnancy. Is salwar-kameez not a more suitable outfit?
As for restrictions on the use of mobile phones, even ‘ultra-modern’ families in metros are worried about the adverse effects of their children’s addiction to mobile phones and related gadgetry. So many families have begun to restrict their children’s access to mobile phones and the internet. In cities they are called ‘enlightened’. But rural families become Talibani for wanting similar controls.
The message is clear: first, if you are coerced to ape western-style clothing, no matter how inconvenient, we should embrace it
as a step towards “liberation”. But even a mild advisory that we should stick to more convenient traditional outfits is dubbed as a sign of backward obscurantist thinking and Talibani temperament; second, parents, teachers, community elders are not allowed to have any say in matters of dress code and larger matters of social morality. This privilege is exclusively reserved for metro-based self-appointed social reformers and zealous TV anchors who have taken on the mantle of ‘civilising’ Indians since our colonial rulers were made to leave India without completing their historic mission.
And we call these imperious attacks lessons in liberalism and modernisation!
Madhu Purnima Kishwar is founder, Manushi, and professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies
The views expressed by the author are personal