Shortly after I took up a teaching job years ago I decided that the sari was not for me. I had to travel long distances by bus and often arrived to take my class in a state of dishevelment with my sari in tatters. Apart from the discomfort, I simply could not afford saris. If you are middle class there’s a code by which you wear saris: cottons, freshly washed and starched all through summer, silks in winter. I switched to the shalvar kameez – long loose trousers and a long shirt worn over them – much more comfortable, and cheaper. The principal of my school wasn’t happy – he thought it important that women teachers should wear saris. It gave them more dignity. ‘What about the men?’ I asked. ‘They wear anything.’ He had no answer to that.
I was lucky, though – I had the freedom to choose. No such freedom is possible for Sameena, a young woman from Kashmir, or for Rina, who lives in Manipur in northeast India. In both places, which have been in the grip of conflict for several years, two new militant groups have recently laid down a dress code for women. Kashmiri women must be covered from head to toe and Manipuri women must wear traditional dress. Dress, according to the militants, is the marker of culture. And the responsibility for preserving culture, and therefore identity, rests solely with women.
Sameena disagrees: ‘I’m 22, a college student. I like looking good. I love bright colours, reds and yellows...I feel very, very strongly about losing my identity.’
The irony is that what comprises a loss of identity for Sameena means the opposite for the militants. You wonder whose identity it is that they are talking about.
Sameena has had to wear the burkha, the head-to-toe cover. Not so much because she herself is afraid but because her mother fears for her safety. There are others who have defied the edict and paid for it. At least two young girls in Kashmir and two women teachers have had acid thrown on their faces. But, under threat of violence, most women in the two regions have accepted the dress code. Still, they’ve openly asserted that the move to impose a dress code in Kashmir was a market-driven one.
‘We know that there’s a great deal of surplus black cloth in the market and the traders need to sell it,’ one of them said. ‘What could be better than to force us to cover ourselves head-to-toe with it?’ In Manipur, too, there’s been strong opposition – despite the fact that militants have said that women who violate the dress code will be shot on sight. ‘Why don’t they suggest the men go back to wearing loincloths if this is what they want us to do?’ said one.
In the past, dress codes for women have seldom evoked male outrage – even so-called progressive men often tacitly support such moves. Indeed, the business of baring or covering parts of women’s bodies is a subject on which most people, particularly men, feel they have a right to pronounce. It’s as if men feel they have a natural right to tell us what we must wear and what our clothes must represent.
But this is changing. Even though not a single important official in India has condemned these fashion edicts both men and women have joined together to oppose them. It’s rumoured that this strong reaction is making the militants rethink their position. The one thing they desperately need is popular support.
Partly this change has to do with globalization. With the media projecting new ideas of dress and beauty (‘Western is chic, slim is beautiful’) there’s just no way in which younger women can be forced into wearing clothes they don’t like. Sameena may have given in to the burkha because of her mother’s anxiety. But, she says: ‘I have long nails on my left hand. I’ve grown them with a lot of care and I love to paint them in all sorts of bright shades. That’s something I can still do. There’s no ban on painting your nails.’
Globalization is also something that has brought into relief the sharp economic differences in societies like ours. Young, militant, indoctrinated men might issue all the diktats they wish. But they can no longer coerce poor women into following them. As Rina said: ‘There’s no way poor women are going to lay out a lot of money to buy new clothes. They just don’t have it. And if the militants in Kashmir think they can force them to work in the fields covered head-to-toe, they are mistaken.’
Whether it’s a sense of the market or of fashion, women everywhere are more aware of choice as a right. If they choose to wear the veil, no-one has the right to deny them this choice. If they choose otherwise, the same thing holds. Fear may coerce some women to give in when dress codes are backed by the power of the gun. But women know that even when external trappings change, they – not some gun-toting militants – will define their own internal identities.
Urvashi Butalia is an Indian writer and publisher. She lives in New Delhi.
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