What, indeed, is the offence quotient of the short skirt or sleeveless kurti? That measure lies not in the hemlines and piping but in the value system of the person and his, yes his, worldview.
There is an inescapably subjective aspect to the term 'appropriate attire'. It seems to override widely accepted norms of dressing and hark back to codes of an even more starkly patriarchal system than ours is today. Is it any surprise, then, that most dress codes are about what women should and should not wear?
Priya Pathiyan wore a sleeveless kurti to the Bombay high court premises and was turned away. There are rules, she was told. Before September 2011, she could have walked in without any constable on duty, man or woman, throwing the rule book at her. Since then, what constitutes "modest dresses and in sober colour" gets decided by the constable at the entrance. What's kosher for one policeman, or policewoman, need not be for another. An indecent proposal
has no compunctions in admitting that short skirts and minis are offensive in a Ganeshotsav pandal. College principals issuing dress-code circulars in the interests of preserving modesty on campus are clear about where they stand.
Schools and shop floors have uniforms, elite clubs and their attire adamancy are legendary, corporates have unwritten codes of dressing, religious places have their codes, many of them contentious, but shouldn't institutions, congregations and celebrations open to the public think not twice but a thousand times before drawing up dress codes, especially those aimed at women?
Cultural and social dress norms exist, and reasonable adults adhere to them. No one wears bikinis to work or hot pants to church. What then lies behind the directive ordering women to cover their arms, heads or legs other than the formal codification of a deeply patriarchal, illogical and gender-biased worldview?
Such codes themselves are offensive. When the codes say "modest" and "decent", it is even more troubling, because of the import of those terms, and the various interpretations they invite. When subjective assessments of what is offensive and what isn’t, what's correct and what isn't, what's good for society and what isn't are turned into rules and regulations in a social space, it's time to ask who is setting the standard, and why. Why separate rules for women, activists ask