Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What Women Wear

One of the topics that holds the potential to incite violent arguments among the most sanguine group of people is what women should or should not wear. Everyone – men, women, children – has an opinion on this issue. If these opinions are made public, especially by powerful men, they affect large numbers of women across class, caste, race and ethnic barriers. Recently, the French president’s personal opinion about a significant item of a Muslim woman’s attire has stirred a hornet’s nest. Well, Mr. Sarkozy better watch out for the juggernaut that will come rolling soon enough!
Nothing annoys a people more than being told by an outsider that their women should or should not wear some form of dress. I don’t know about other women but I know that nothing annoys me more than being told how to dress. I believe that one of the greatest joys of being a woman is that I have the privilege of choosing to drape myself in a range of dresses that begin with the saree and end with the short skirt. Also, being an Indian, the plethora of colours in our markets increases variety in my closet. I have wilfully resisted being influenced by anyone about my choice of clothing. The only factor that has governed my choice was my mood / state of mind. I have hardly paid heed to the unsolicited fashion advice, never allowed my peers to pressure me into choosing one form of dress over another and barely worried about the opinion of community leaders on my clothes.
While experimenting with my personal style, I have driven a gay poet to writing a poem about my sartorial choices, exasperated my mother with a long drawn battle over the issue, driven my dad into repeating the Hindi proverb ap ruchi khana aur per ruchi pehenna countless times, got teased by my siblings, aggressively defended my choice of dress with my extended family and survived disapproving looks from my husband’s extended family. However, I’m yet to control my temper when I hear someone, especially a man, tell me or any other woman in the world what a woman should or should not wear.
I understand that people set a lot of store by clothes as representative of their cultural leanings, their lifestyle and their social moorings. However, I am annoyed by the fact that the responsibility of representation is laid squarely on the shoulders of the women of their community. This role of representing culture through clothes is one of the last vestiges of cultures where women were seen but not heard. It is absurd to expect articulate and efficient women to use clothes to represent themselves or their affiliations. Not only are they insulted by being reduced to mannequins of culture but injury is also inflicted upon them by snatching away their agency.
I believe the right to choose her dress is a fundamental right of a woman. She has the sole right to decide whether she wishes to dress according to the rules periodically given out by the world of fashion or she wishes to please her family, friends, employers, workmates, community by representing them through her sartorial choices or she dresses for her comfort. This ought to be as much a right as the right to free speech and the right to knowledge. Most of my peers would like to believe that all of them enjoy all the three rights I mentioned above. I would like to sit with each one of them and show them the various ways in which families, friends, communities, teams, societies and states curtail each of these rights.
At present, I’ll deal with the right to choose one’s dress and try to show the ways it gets curtailed. If we begin at home, off the cuff, I can present a list of half a dozen sets of people who believe they have a right to state their opinion: spouse, children, parents, siblings, parents-in-law and grandparents. The minute she steps out many other players join the game. Friends will declare what is in and what is out of style and will gently nudge her to dress appropriately for each occasion. Communities will judge her abilities as a member of their group, as a member of society and even as a member of her family by interpreting her style in clothes. She is supposed to follow dozens of overt and tacit dress codes at work. She is expected to follow the diktats of her religion and every once in a while she expected to wear her ‘traditional’ costume to represent her home state or country at some forum.
If a woman sets out to fight with each set of people to reserve her sartorial choice for herself, she will be embarking on a task that will be as unending and exhausting as that of Sisyphus. So, most women choose to turn a deaf ear to the people who are imposing dress codes on them and wear whatever they want to. That is definitely the pragmatic way to handle such interference but is it helping in sending the message that women ought not to be judged for how they look?
Should women allow the ancient role of representatives of culture to be foisted upon them? Shouldn’t they claim agency in this area too?