Do women have a right to wear what they want?

Should tourists in India dress more in keeping with local values? Dhiraj Singh / Bloomberg
Should tourists in India dress more in keeping with local values? Dhiraj Singh / Bloomberg

A week ago, I had a tense conversation with my college-going daughter. She studies in the United States and was visiting India on holiday. The topic of our discussion was the shorts she was wearing. I was trying to persuade my daughter not to wear them while running around our building. Why give onlookers something to stare at?

My daughter, 19, couldn’t comprehend what I was saying. “I’ll take the stares, Mum,” she said. “I’d rather run in comfort.”

“People in your grandmother’s generation played tennis in nine-yard saris,” I said. “I have photos to prove it. You don’t need to wear those shorts to run. Thousands of women work on construction sites wearing saris.”

“Not for me,” said my daughter and walked out. I am a feminist I am also keenly attuned to and protective of norms of culture and tradition; and how western values and ideas are taking over the world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in women’s clothing. And this is where I cleave away from the sisterhood of women who espouse everything I believe in: equal rights, pay and opportunity for women. Traditions, however, are a different matter – and for me, they are intricately linked to textiles or clothes.

Last month, India’s culture and tourism minister, Mahesh Sharma, said that foreign women should not wear short dresses, skirts or other “skimpy” clothes for their own safety. He has been lambasted for his views. Why not distribute a uniform to visiting women tourists, asked one commentator. A young woman, Shruti Ambast, wrote a mocking poem about how “skirts are a no-no because legs are bare”.

I love the poem but I think this extreme reaction can only be possible when you are young and rebellious. I used to be that way – impatient of and irritated with the elders in my family when they talked about sartorial propriety and sensitivity to surroundings.

The nub of the question is this: do women have a right to wear whatever they want? My answer, and I know this is not the popular one, is qualified: not always, within reason, depending on the situation and location. Does anyone have the right to wear whatever they want all the time? Of course not.

Would you allow your child to wear a torn T-shirt and shorts to a place of worship? Probably not. To this day, there are temples in Kerala that insist men remove their shirts before entering the premises. Would you advise a colleague to dress appropriately for an office event? Yes, absolutely. Are women exempt from these expectations? No. India is one of the few cultures that boasts indigenous garments such as the sari, shalwar kameez (tunic and loose trousers), the lehenga-skirt and the short blouse that displays the midriff.

Garments in India have a rich history and are replete with regional variations and very specific cultural connotations. They are perfectly suited for tropical climes and are aesthetically pleasing to the eye. When you visit India, why wouldn’t you try out its native clothes? To insist on wearing short skirts in a culture that has an embarrassment of clothing choices for the woman isn’t a fight for freedom. It is being tone-deaf to cultural norms.

The minister was probably tone-deaf to how his words would be interpreted. But I can see why he said what he did. I say the same thing to my daughters when they go out at night: don’t wear skimpy clothes.

Sure, you can blame society for its law and order problems; you can say that life isn’t fair in expecting a woman to take precautions rather than preventing men from “eve teasing” or sexually assaulting a woman. But until such a perfect society comes to be, trying out India’s native garments seems like a fine option.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: A Memoir

Published: September 5, 2016 04:00 AM


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