Look who’s wearing the pants

Human Rights
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Saheli wishes to join the police force, like these trainee police officers. FlyingCloud under a Creative Commons Licence

Every Sunday morning among the sprawling greenery in the heart of Kolkata, young women in khaki pants and shirts lift their knees and fling their arms as they march in synch to the beat of the music. At the end of two exhausting hours of exercises and drills, Anwara and Saheli, two friends, quickly change into their salwar-kameez, dupattas draped demurely around their chests, contentment writ large on their faces as they head back home just in time for lunch. For the past year, the two have never missed a single weekend at the fields; not a single opportunity to wear their pants and fantasize about their dreams.

‘I have always wanted to wear tight blue jeans!’ Anwara’s laughter is even more dazzling than her dangling earrings. ‘My parents will never allow jeans, though they came to accept khaki pants.’ Saheli’s kajal-lined eyes sparkle as she narrates the laborious process of convincing her parents who even threatened to withdraw her from college. ‘Our parents were scared about pants, but men don’t ogle at women in khaki pants’, Saheli had argued. Saheli dreams that the weekly training might help her become a chief constable in the police force and ‘wield power’. For Anwara, who loves sports, the marching and the exercises are the next best thing to sporting activity.

It was a poster of men in khaki pants in the college lobby that sparked off Anwara’s and Saheli’s quest to be different. Immediately the two students at an undergraduate college in the outskirts of the city decided to join the National Cadet Corps (NCC) – an Indian version of the Scout movement – for parades and basic training. But in their college, the NCC (and sport in general) is only for male students. The girls had to look elsewhere. So every Sunday, at the crack of dawn, they trudge through deserted paddy fields to reach the main road where they catch the bus to the city centre and do their NCC training. They keep their cell phones on speed dial to alert their families in case of an emergency.

Painfully aware of accusations of immoral behaviour the two girls requested that their identities be kept secret and since few girls join NCC from their village and college, this information too is withheld. Like thousands of girls in India, Anwara and Saheli tread a fine line. Even a careless smile or lowering of the dupatta could jeopardize their hard-won freedom. In the tussle between intolerance and refusal to conform, the desire for physical activities and to wear pants becomes a gesture of subversion, opening up possibilities. It is the image of action, confidence and power – not victimhood.

Anwara’s passion for jeans that cling to her slender hips and thighs is as much a rebellious departure from her loose-fitting salwar-kameez that hide her curves from male attention as her insistence on attending college. She is the first in her family to receive higher education. With Saheli, the baton she wields during NCC training is her tool to rise above poverty and carve out a distinctive path in the family of wage earners from which she hails.

Yet I felt a sense of disquiet. The police force she hopes to enter is linked in my mind to a culture that is both repressive and masculine. The worlds of film and politics both promote an admiration for violence and the symbolic use of the uniform with all its accessories – guns, batons and chains. The uniform has never inspired confidence, whether back in 1972, when policemen raped a 16-year old tribal girl called Mathura, sparking off the Indian women’s movement in protest, or as recently as 2012, when Suzette faced humiliation from the police she turned to for help after she was raped in the heart of Kolkata. In order to be recognized as citizens with equal rights, are women like Anwara and Saheli compelled to internalize roles that are traditionally associated with men?

Yet, as I dozed off in the bus the most lasting impression I had of the two friends was their unbridled energy in rejecting their circumstances and the support they gave each other in pursuing their dreams. This was not helplessness, the kind that attracts some men.

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