It starts soon after birth. Girl babies must be dressed in pink. Their dresses must have plenty of frills and ruffles. A bit of sparkle wouldn’t go amiss. And it doesn’t matter if the poor mite is virtually bald, stick a shiny headband or a shimmery barrette on for good measure.
Girls, you see, must look like girls. If you must dress them in trousers be sure to slip on a floral T-shirt on top. If you put them in shorts rather than skirts, make sure they are wearing delicate ballerina shoes, not sturdy sneakers. And if they are on the beach or at a swimming pool, they must wear proper swimsuits, with a bikini top that covers breasts that they haven’t yet sprouted.
And from then on, the fashion messaging gets rather relentless. Girls who want to wear jeans and shirts rather than pretty little dresses as they grow into their pre-teens are described indulgently (and sometimes exasperatedly) as ‘tomboys’. The subliminal message is that this is a phase they will grow out of, once they have gotten in touch with their femininity. Because this is clearly not how girls are supposed to look.
Teenage brings with it its own set of rules, depending on where they live. If they live in small towns or in rural India, then this is the time to put away their frocks and skirts and seek shelter in the ‘safe’ haven of a salwar kameez.
If their parents are more ‘liberal’ than most, then they can wear jeans with a kurta, if it is long enough to cover their derrières. But that’s only until they get married. Once they are in their husband’s home, the in-laws decide what they get to wear. Salwar kameez or sari. Head covered or uncovered. Ghoonghat or no ghoonghat.
The fashion choices of urban women are relatively unrestricted – but only up to a point (at the end of the day, they are ‘girls’ after all). And so long as their parents, brothers, husbands, in-laws, and larger communities are on board.
So college girls in the major metros can, in theory, wear dresses, skirts, jeans, shorts or whatever the hell they please. There’s just one catch. The fashion police that parades every campus, indeed every street, in India must approve. And if they think that tight jeans are ‘distracting’ or that short skirts are a ‘provocation’ well then, they wear that kind of stuff at their own peril.
In fact, as girls grow into women, it is quite amazing just how many fashion choices come attached with a tag titled ‘Asking For It’. That sleeveless top tucked into the waistband of your trousers; that sari blouse tied across your back with a couple of strings; that skirt that rides up your thighs when you sit down or cross your legs; the leggings that show off the shape of your posterior; the dress that reveals cleavage when you bend down; or even the otherwise staid sari that shows off your midriff and stomach. No matter what your choice of outfit and which body part it exposes (or conceals), there is always a good chance that you are ‘asking for it’.
What did you say? What are these women ‘asking for’? Well, that depends. It could be anything from being catcalled on the street, being followed home by putative stalkers, being groped in buses, marketplaces or on the Metro. And that’s if they are lucky. If they aren’t, they could even be ‘asking for’ being molested, or even raped by hapless men who have been so thoroughly ‘provoked’ that they can’t be held responsible for their actions.
This scenario gets even more complicated if you bring the entire world into the mix. You can’t wear bikinis in Iran. You can’t wear burkinis in France. You can’t leave your head uncovered in Saudi Arabia. You can’t cover your face in Belgium. And so on and on and on.
Nor does it get any better as women get older. They might think that they have now passed the stage of being seen as sexual beings. And that they can now relax and wear whatever the hell they want. Well if they do, they have another thing coming.
Once they are in their 40s, the fashion advice comes couched in ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ terms (sometimes from their own daughters who scoff: “Are you really going out in that?”). Anything above the knee is a strict no-no. Tight trousers or dresses are seen as a dodgy choice. And bare upper arms or a dash of cleavage invites exhortations of “Just put it away, dear!”
Even when women are post-menopausal or well into their 60s and 70s, the gratuitous tips don’t cease. And in India, it gets particularly intrusive if they are widows. Don’t wear bright colors. Don’t use so much makeup. And is that bindi really a good idea? In fact, the style rules still apply even when they are dead: a red sari for the pyre if her husband survives her; a white one if she is a widow.
As far as dress codes go, there’s none quite as stringent as the ones prescribed for women: from the moment they enter this world to the time they depart it.
This really is a life-long service. And it matters little that you didn’t sign up for it.
From HT Brunch, September 11, 2016
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