What Not to Wear

Arti Kadian

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

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Kong, The Women of Tyrshang

Hemashri Dhavala

An insight into the matrilineal society of Meghalaya

“It’s an iron rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable.” – Yuval Noah Harari

In prehistoric times, humans lived in small societies as hunter-gatherers. To survive, men and women would together hunt down animals, gather plants, berries and nuts. Nurturing for the young was a communal activity and parenting was a group effort. Studies have shown that more than three-fourth of the handprints found in the caves in Spain were made by women. Even in early agriculture settlements the men, women and children worked equally in fields. It’s rather absurd to think that in such labour-intensive activities one group would sit idle while the other worked day and night.

Bobbing its head a chicken walks carefully, laying its feet one by one on a clay road, leaving its footprints on the road, damp from the rain. There is a faint noise of women giggling and thumping mud from a nearby shanty. A few more chickens cluck about and the strong smell of freshly cut pine wood engulfs the entire village. It’s all very surreal.

In ancient times, it is said that the Khasi and Jaintia men were fierce warriors who protected their land from invaders and spent most of their lives away from their homeland. The uncertainty of whether the warriors would come back and the consequent fear of their sacred land falling into the hands of the invaders gave birth to the idea of female inheritance of land. And so this tradition became a part of their religion and from then on the woman is the owner of the house. According to Khasi culture, the youngest daughter of the family inherits all of the property passed down from her mother and before that her grandmother.

A one and a half-hour taxi ride from the city of Shillong brings you to the village of Tyrshang. Located in the Jaintia Hills in the northeastern state of Meghalaya. It is home to some Khasi and Jaintia communities. As a part of a craft-based subject to study and understand more about the unique craft of making handmade pots from black clay and greenstone acquired from the Sung valley, I was lucky to witness the beauty and simplicity of this village and peek into the lives of the people and witness their culture. Working alongside highly skilled artisans observing and absorbing their splendour. 

Kong Ibahun’s sister showing us a freshly made pot.

The title Kong meaning sister in Khasi is commonly used in the region to respectfully address a woman. Kong Ibahun is one of the many women of the village who make pots out of black clay. She is my guide and mentor in learning more about the community. 

A typical day starts at around five in the morning with children running to school and women gathering in Kong Ibahun’s courtyard to start pounding the clay for a day’s worth of pots. Gathered around with muddy hands they shape pots and discuss their day. The majority of the households here make a living by making and selling ceremonial hand-made black clay pots. This craft, known as Khiew Ranei, is said to have originated by a family in a neighbouring village, their kin settled in Tyrshang and continued practicing the craft. The fresh produce of the week along with local delicacies and handlooms are sold in a weekly market. 

A shop selling assorted dried fish
A woman selling Potha Ru

Every Saturday, the women prepare to go to the market. As I walk into the market I am transported into a whole new world with vendors selling everyday utilities from dry fish, poultry, silkworms, Koi, paan leaves, local vegetable, berries, spices, tea leaves, duma (local smoking tobacco), smoking wood pipes, clothes, jainsem (a traditional garment), baskets, pots to Bangladeshi boots, fishing nets, and potions. The market is dominated by women.

People from nearby villages flock to the market to replenish their weekly supplies and it gives the sellers a good place to display the variety of their products and skill. There is a woman selling Potha Ru (traditional rice cakes) to a woman who then hands it over to her baby tied on her back. The woman with the baby then picks up her sack full of amenities and walks away. A woman selling paan leaves and koi calls me to her stall and asks me to take a good picture of her, in return she offers me a paan leaf with some choona and half a koi nut. I accept her gift with gratitude.

A mother with child on her back buying Potha Ru
Women selling Paan leaves and Koi

Typically after marriage, the husband acquires the wife’s name and moves into her family home. Their children take the mother’s last name. They say that the man is the head of the family and the woman is the neck, where the neck turns the head follows.

Next to the market is a tea stall, offering red tea or sha with a selection of garlic chicken, smoked pork, boiled spinach gravy with a side of red rice and fermented fish chutney for lunch. The woman who owns the tea stall gets busy feeding her son after serving her customers. She has a few friends sitting and drinking tea and talking when suddenly lightning strikes and everybody goes quiet. The awkward silence makes everyone in the little shop burst into laughter.

Walking back I hear somebody calling me from behind, it’s Kong Ibahun. I spotted her earlier in the market selling her pots. She is now on her way back with a bag full of groceries and a big bunch of local bananas. I give her a hand as she escorts me back to her home. 

As we reach home her younger son and elder daughter come and take her bag from her and start unpacking the groceries, Kong gets started on making lunch after feeding her four-month-old daughter. Sitting with Kong Ibahun in her sultry kitchen as she makes smoked pork curry we drink some sha. She has freshly made pots stacked on the side of her herth. Rows of corn hang on the ceiling of the kitchen most probably left to smoke.

Smoking Corn
Kong Ibahun’s children helping her out

Kong Ibahun’s eldest son

While in Tryshang, Kong Ibahun and the other women of the village are in a position of power that is granted to them through inheritance of property, in many societies across the world, women are not so lucky. Today, even when women do pursue their careers in professions previously dominated by men, they bear the bulk of the household work and are assumed to be the primary caregivers. The distribution of labour is skewed drastically with no added gains for women. 

A village elder

Passing down all the ancestral property to the daughter may not be the best way to create an equal society. That said, piling all the housework on a woman or  presuming a bulldozer operator, a CEO of a Fortune 100 company, a stockbroker in wall street to be a man isn’t equal either. 

“Does the handle of a jhadu (broom) come printed with the words: ‘to be operated by women only’?” asks a petition started by Subarna Ghosh, co-founder of an NGO called ReRight Foundation. It asks Prime Minister Modi to ask Indian men to do house chores as well. In the hope that if the Prime Minister asks them, they might listen. The time I spent in the village of Tyrshang will stay with me forever as a time when I witnessed a society that not only encouraged women but also placed them in a position of power through inheritance. Their involvement in important decisions related to the household and the village allowed them to live a life of their choice and in their own terms. 

Hemashri is a Graphic designer from the National Institute of Fashion Technology and the Creative Director of Bol Magazine.

Photos by Hemashri Dhavala

The Farce of Self-Defence

Ananya Agarwal

Why promoting self-defence is a negligent and weak attempt to solve the rape crisis in India

Content Warning: Rape and Sexual assault 

Rape and everyday instances of sexual violence are a lived experience for Indian women. In 2018, the Thomson Reuters Foundation ranked India as the most dangerous country in the world for women. This follows from the 2012 gang rape that shocked the nation, made headlines globally, and brought the conversation around sexual violence to the forefront. 

One would assume that since then, the number of rape cases in India would have gone down. However, as per the Crime in India 2012 report released by N.C.R.B. (National Crime Report Bureau), the number of reported rape cases rose from 24,923 in 2012 to 33,356 in 2018. These numbers are limited to rape and do not include reports of other forms of sexual violence, such as an attempt to rape, sexual harassment in different forms and, stalking, etc. It is important to highlight that most cases of these various forms of sexual violence go unreported. 

Under these circumstances, we see many advocating for self-defence as a solution to rape. A prominent example is a statement by the Delhi High Court advising girls to learn self-defence. There are several instances of Indian actors advocating for self-defence. When asked about the threat of harassment and assault that women face on a daily basis, they suggested that women should learn how to defend themselves. Actor Sushmita Sen shared her own story of being harassed recently by a 15-year-old boy and how she was able to detect him out of a crowd and confront him because of her self-defence training. She advised girls to learn self-defence.

“It is important to understand how sexual assault is rooted in a display of dominance and power over women”

The argument for self-defence goes back to the 1960s and the 1970s when it was seen as a means of empowering women. If women could learn to protect themselves against their attackers, there would be a decline in the number of rape cases. It is important to understand how sexual assault is rooted in a display of dominance and power over women. Tearing down the patriarchal mindset was and remains a humongous task. It may have been easier for women to take their security and well-being into their own hands because the system failed to help them. 

“The idea of self-defence is problematic for many reasons, primarily because it gives in to the idea that brutal attacks are impossible to stop, that they can ‘happen’ to anyone, anywhere, and therefore, the victim-survivors should stay alert and be well equipped to defend themselves”

Even though women’s position in society has arguably improved since the 1960s, the self-defence argument remains popular in the mainstream. It is problematic for many reasons, primarily because it gives in to the idea that brutal attacks are impossible to stop, that they can ‘happen’ to anyone, anywhere, and therefore, the victim-survivors should stay alert and be well equipped to defend themselves, at all times. This leads to transferring the responsibility from the attacker onto the person who is being attacked – creating a very clear shift of blame.

On invoking the idea of self defence, like in the bygone decades, we make the debate about a victim-survivor’s ability to protect themselves. However, it is not a question of whether a victim-survivor is able to protect themselves when they are in that situation. It is a question of why they find themselves in that situation in the first place. If we think that self-defence can prevent rape, we must question if victim-survivors will stop being targetted by rapists once they learn how to defend themselves. Will learning self-defence prevent an attack? The simple, and yet harsh answer is no.

“More often than not, the attacker is known to the victim-survivor”

When we think of rape, what comes to mind is a vicious attack by a stranger in a dark alley.  But more often than not, the attacker is known to the victim-survivor. It takes place in their own house and in their bedrooms. As per the data provided by N.C.R.B. (National Crime Records Bureau), in 2018, 94% of all sexual offenders were family members, friends, neighbours, employers, live-in partners, etc. In such cases, the victim-survivor may not be able to use the strategy of self-defence while under attack. This can be due to many reasons, for instance, the internal conflict caused due to familiarity with the attacker can lead to a range of feelings like fear, betrayal and bewilderment.  

It is also imperative to emphasize the concept of re-victimization. An individual who has experienced sexual assault earlier in their life may struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (P.T.S.D.), which may cause physical as well as psychological trauma. When faced with a similar situation again, their brain and body may react by shutting down to prevent further trauma rendering them incapable of defending themselves in any other way. Research shows that it is common for the victim-survivor to freeze in cases of first-time assaults as well. Sexual assault is not a natural interaction wherein people can apply their common sense and know how to react. It can be an extremely traumatic event and advocating for self-defence makes the victim-survivor answerable for it.

“The lack of acknowledgement that a person who is being raped may already be in a physically vulnerable position and self-defence may not be an option at all is a big blind spot when considering it to be the solution”

Moreover, the use of self-defence can result in escalating the situation and lead to even more harmful consequences. The lack of acknowledgement that a person who is being raped may already be in a physically vulnerable position and self-defence may not be an option at all is a big blind spot when considering it to be the solution. Victim-survivors often have to make the difficult trade-off between defending themselves and potentially aggravating the attacker(s) further, risking immense pain and even more severe injuries. 

In 2018, it was found that every fourth rape victim in India was a minor. According to the National Crime Records Bureau data, 34.7% of all crimes against children are rape cases. Sexual offenses also take place, for instance, against physically and mentally disabled, as well as aged people. Cases of sexual assault have surfaced while people have been in custody, by police personnel, public servants, jail staff and others. Last week, a custodial rape case came to light in the state of Orissa where a 13-year old tribal minor was repeatedly sexually assaulted by the Inspector-in-charge. Citing self-defence as a solution to rape and sexual assault does not address the plight of minors, physically and mentally disabled, elderly, who may not have the physical capacity required to defend themselves.

“Much like many other cited solutions, some of which seek to restrict and confine people within societal boundaries “walk around in groups”, “show no skin”, “don’t step out after dark”, self-defence also does not provide a concrete solution”

Today, many understand that sexual assault is immoral and look down on it, but they are not cognizant of why it’s wrong. Before we instill fear in potential sex offenders, it is essential to educate them about why it is wrong and how they could be violating someone and impacting their life in immeasurable ways. Much like many other cited solutions, some of which seek to restrict and confine people within societal boundaries “walk around in groups”, “show no skin”, “don’t step out after dark”, self-defence also does not provide a concrete solution. 

While the idea of self-defence may be attractive, it is an unsatisfactory attempt to solve a larger and more foundational issue. The attention, instead, should be on challenging the systemic conditions that allow rapes to happen as frequently as they do while letting rapists get away without justice. It is critical to focus on creating awareness about sex education and consent as well as fighting the stigma surrounding sexual assault and supporting victim-survivors.

 A management consultant by profession, Ananya is a part of team Bol. She enjoys experimenting with different creative mediums and seeks out all things chocolate.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala