Examining how clothing traditions have sought to control women’s identity and autonomy in India.
Content Warning: Violence Against Women, Rape, Victim-survivor shaming quotes
On 19 June 2020, the Gauhati High Court passed a judgement granting a divorce to a man because his wife refused to wear sindoor (a vermillion red powder worn in the part of their hair by married Hindu women). The order grabbed attention as it stated: “her refusal to wear ‘sakha and sindoor’ will project her to be unmarried and/or signify her refusal to accept the marriage with the appellant (husband). Such a categorical stand of the respondent (wife) points to the clear intention of the respondent that she is unwilling to continue her conjugal life with the appellant.”
“Other facts withstanding, the order has exposed the belief pushed by the age-old patriarchal system that the identity of a Hindu woman is defined by her relationship with men.”
Other facts withstanding, the order has exposed the belief pushed by the age-old patriarchal system that the identity of a Hindu woman is defined by her relationship with men. In this case, it was her marital status, signalled by her wearing sindoor that legitimised her relationship with her husband.
A Family Court in Mumbai granted a woman divorce on grounds of cruelty as her husband objected to her wearing a kurta and jeans, forcing her to wear sarees. When she refused to do so she faced humiliation and harassment. The case reaffirmed the norms applicable to women concerning their clothing choices and illustrated the varied consequences of a pushback against the existing system.
In May 2019, a video of a middle-aged woman went viral for verbally harassing a group of young women for the length of their dresses. She associated their attire with a heinous crime like rape, stating that “All ladies who wear short or naked dress should get raped”. Meanwhile, recent reports on the Bois Locker Room – a group for sharing images of underage girls and jokes on sexual assault and rape on Instagram – highlighted the sexist misogynistic and deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes towards women.
“Clothes have been used as weapons by institutions, religions and societies to oppress women’s freedom. From a very early age of a woman’s life, there are persistent reinforcements and reminders of do’s and don’t rules imposed regarding clothing and choices.”
Clothes have been used as weapons by institutions, religions and societies to oppress women’s freedom. From a very early age of a woman’s life, there are persistent reinforcements and reminders of do’s and don’t rules imposed regarding clothing and choices. These rules vary over religion and caste, with disproportionate unfairness to minority communities leaving women with no space for expression, control or decision-making.
“Women have always been subjected to intense scrutiny, with strict implementations of ‘covering up’ to protect them against ‘evil intentions’.”
Women have always been subjected to intense scrutiny, with strict implementations of “covering up” to protect them against “evil intentions”. Other reasons justifying this misogynistic practice are those of “honour of community” and “traditional norms”.
Alpaxee Kashyap, a Ph.D. scholar in Women and Gender Studies, rightfully notes that clothes represent culture, the protector of which is the state. She argues that women have used nudity to resist injustice and as a tool of protest. She elaborates using the example of a 22-year-old woman who walked in her underwear in Rajkot, Gujarat to protest against police inaction to her complaints. The complaints were against her in-laws who were emotionally and physically harassing her, demanding a dowry and a male offspring.
Globalisation brought western clothing and attires to India. Modernisation along with an increased focus on women’s education and the inclusion of women in the formal labour market contributed to Indian women choosing western garments over traditional clothing. However, this created friction with the patriarchal set up of Indian society which saw it as “against ‘Indian culture’.” The choice of attire, when western, was categorised as being “vulgar”, and the woman wearing it as “immoral”.
“A grocery store owner in Delhi expressed: ‘But here girls can’t be like the girls in the west. They have to dress decently and watch where they go, who they are with’.”
An article by The Sydney Morning Herald presents the various views of men regarding rising sexual assault cases in India. Many have found ways to blame the “western culture”. A grocery store owner in Delhi expressed: “But here girls can’t be like the girls in the west. They have to dress decently and watch where they go, who they are with”. Mohan Bhagwat, leader of the Hindu organization, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh said: “Such incidents[rapes] happen due to the influence of western culture and women wearing less clothes.”
The argument of Indian vs western culture falls flat because according to fashion historian Toolika Gupta, in India there were no written dress codes. This concept was imposed by the British colonisers. The terms “blouse” and “petticoat” were introduced by colonisers, coexisting with some Southern as well as Bengal regions where women were traditionally bare-chested. These findings negate the argument that ties Western clothing to “immodesty”. Gupta also explores pre-colonial clothing attires adorned by women. Early representations of women have shown them with minimal clothing.
“Clothing for women has also varied with religion and caste in India with discrimination more pronounced for minority categories.”
Clothing for women has also varied with religion and caste in India with discrimination more pronounced for minority categories. A Livemint article, titled, “The changing fabric of Dalit life” (21st April 2017) talks about how caste barriers also defined the rules surrounding attire for example what Dalit women could wear. As an example, the article mentions the period of 1800s where men and women of the Nadar community of Travancore were forced to keep their upper bodies bare to show respect to the upper caste Hindus. This was termed as the “breast tax”, named after the fine required to be paid on violating the rule. Vivek Kumar a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, interviewed in the article explains: “Dalit women were involved in midwifery—so whatever was there which was soiled during childbirth, was given to them. Dalit women also performed duties at the time of death, so whatever was left by the dead, they would get that.” The article mentions that men from lower caste communities also demanded that women be conservatively dressed to prevent upper caste men from their villages from sexually objectifying them.
“The conversation surrounding women’s clothing and attire has even found its way in arguments abetting sexual violence.”
The conversation surrounding women’s clothing and attire has even found its way in arguments abetting sexual violence. In the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case, one of the rape accused named Mukesh Singh was interviewed for a BBC documentary “India’s daughter”. He majorly used the character assassination in his defence, that a “decent” girl would not be roaming on the streets at night and would not wear “wrong” clothes.
“While this horrific incident shook the consciousness of the Indian society, the victim-survivor shaming that accompanied the initial investigation proved the apathetic response to sexual violence.”
While this horrific incident shook the consciousness of the Indian society, the victim-survivor shaming that accompanied the initial investigation proved the apathetic response to sexual violence. The case highlighted illogical “victim shaming” reactions which eventually normalise our society’s misogynistic response to sexual violence against women. This was demonstrated when a biology teacher in Kendra Vidyalaya in Raipur, proclaimed and taught her co-ed class that “wearing revealing clothes incites crimes like that of Nirbhaya”.
On similar lines, a HuffPost article by Chetan Bhagat, attempted to examine the reasons for rape apologists to question the character of victim-survivors. He proposes it as a “coping mechanism” for those who seek comfort in the belief that victim-survivors are responsible for what happened to them and so their family members are safe by dressing conservatively. Another reason Bhagat explains is the denial of female sexuality that is expressed through clothing.
Bhagat may argue that the imbalance of sexual power between the two genders could be a reason for violence against women, however, on exploring further one cannot discount the systemic injustices meted out to women on their relationship with their bodies. Clothes have been a means to further the objectification of women as property of men. This regressive treatment of women reflects how women’s identity, choices and right to self-expression have been controlled by Indian society and used as a tool to judge their character. Feminist movements have highlighted this issue and aim to provide women with equal social, legal, political and economic rights enjoyed by their male counterparts.
Arti is an Economics Major, keenly interested in development economics especially in the area of gender. Currently working as a risk consultant, she is also an avid reader and a yoga enthusiast. She aims to work at a social consultancy that focuses on education of girls.
Design By Daya Bhatti