Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Dress codes and the stigma attached to it

An important lesson girls growing up in India are taught is to pull down the length of our skirts to lengthen them, for the fear and stigma attached to what we wear and how it can be provocative and attract the male gaze can make us appear scandalous and of questionable morals. 
I remember the carefree days as a young girl in India, when skirts and shorts hanging inside our closets didn't invite criticism from people. But, as our bodies started growing in size, covering it up became a necessity. 
My mother was never bothered about what I wear and did it in any way feed the sexual gaze of young boys or men. My favourite dress from childhood was a mini skirt resting below my thighs with white polka dots and golden buttons. The white shirt with ruffles and laces was the perfect match for this black skirt. Till this day, I vividly remember the colour and feel of the skirt and the top, and the memories it gave me. Another favourite piece of garment from my childhood was a yellow dress with huge flower motifs that made me look like a garden. It did grab a few eyeballs and people fed on unhealthy doses of patriarchy told me to not show off my hands, legs, shoulders or chest because girls from decent families should never show skin. 

It has surprised me and made me pull my hair in despair as to why didn't the length of the shorts that boys of my age wore, or the manner in which they sat or their freedom to run amok in the clothing of their choice irk the sentiments of the people around me. Why were they always adamant about measuring the length of my garments? 
"You're a distraction for the men" or "you may get molested for dressing like a whore" made me realise the notoriety of misogyny that places the onus of covering up on women and young girls because apparently the sight of female human body would rack the brains of men who wouldn't be able to keep the thing in their trousers inside. 
It is also atrocious to devalue a woman based on how she decides to dress up. A woman who dares to not cover up shouldn't be degraded because she has the rights to take decisions about her body, and how much of it should be covered. Meanwhile, we all must understand that sex work is a profession and how a prostitute attracts business and makes money shouldn't depreciate her value as a person or her profession.
                                                  Picture credit:

The infamy of patriarchy has made sure that the burden of not attracting the male gaze always rests on the woman, which is why oppressive customs like hijab or burqa are in being. One of the most disrespectful and tasteless comments that I can recall came from a muslim woman who thought that the responsibility of covering up lies with the members of the second sex because it's she who titillates a man and propagates sexual violence. Sexual violence has taken root because of prejudices like these, which reprimands the sufferer and not the one who perpetrated the crime. 

A disturbing sight that sent jitters down my spine was seeing a young baby girl barely two or three years old donning a black burkha without a face veil, in a plush glossy Bangalore mall. I wondered as to what might have pestered the parents to think that her tiny body could excite the male hormones or were their eyes blindfolded by the fallacies of religion that has unleashed a cycle of unending violence on women who have chosen to believe in it.
Recently I penned a poem on dress codes which made me think of my journey from being a young free girl who could show skin to someone who grew up to think that dressing down will save her from sexual harassment until I decided to put my foot down and decided to flow against the tide.

When I was a little girl

I wore skirts that rested above the knees

bruised by falls I had while counting

the hopscotch squares.

I got good grades in school

and ran with my peers

to stay in the race. For the sake of comfort

I wore jeans and tee shirts that hugged

my frail body.

In college, we were told to dress down

we wore ill-fitting garments

that hung on our bodies

as though we were hangers.

Then one day we decided to flow

against the tide, it gave us a kick

pinching our dead bones, from then

we learned to shed our skin

bare our scars and not be ashamed of our flesh

that the male gaze often feeds on.

We haven’t covered up, since then.

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