For activists, it is a matter of concern that institutions such as the Bombay high court administration deem it fit to issue cryptic dress codes that mandate “modest dress and sober colours”.
The policemen and other security officials who must enforce these dress codes are inclined to agree, pointing out that such terms make any action subjective.
On Saturday, 36-year-old magazine editor Priya Pathiyan was barred from entering the sesquicentennial anniversary exhibition being held on the second floor of the high court building at Fort.
The policewoman at the security check post interpreted her sleeveless kurti as “immodest”.
“The woman said I was not being allowed inside because of the sleeveless top I was wearing. She also said that she had already turned away several such women visitors,” Pathiyan told Hindustan Times.
Pathiyan offered to use a shawl to cover her arms, but eventually, fearing a scene, gave in and abandoned both the argument and her plan of visiting the exhibition.
The woman constable was interpreting a notification issued by the prothonotary and senior master for the court in September 2011.
It states: “… instruction be, therefore issued forthwith to all security guards deployed at various entrances… to allow those visitors and litigants who are wearing modest dresses and in sober colour”.
As a law-abiding citizen, Pathiyan said she would gladly follow the rules. “However, as a progressive-thinking person, I would oppose this interpretation of them,” she added.
Women’s activists lamented that dress codes are usually centred on women’s attire, thereby shifting the burden of “being decent” onto them exclusively.
“This is the same culture that’s okay with women’s bodies commodified in films and ads, but has problems when women dress in a particular way in the real world. If there are dress codes, they should be for all,” said Nandita Shah, women’s rights activist and co-founder of women’s resource centre Akshara.
Added activist Hasina Khan: “The issue is more pervasive than it seems. Dress codes get decided by managements, which are usually male. Many hospitals run by Muslim managements, for instance, insist that all women staffers cover their heads. I know women who hate this, but it’s a question of livelihood, so they carry on."