Sharanya Misra

Frankly, I was wary of writing on this topic. I have been dilly dallying for a couple of weeks now for two reasons. One, I am exasperated at what’s happening around me and this makes me want to speak up! But two, I am already cringing at the backlash this piece will receive, from my own gender at that! So, after a lot of contemplation I decided to ask myself how important this was to me as a woman and received the instant response “Very”. Hence, I go ahead!

A few months ago, internationally acclaimed Indian actress Ms. Priyanka Chopra met with the Indian Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi in the US. A woman, who has worked hard to earn her place in the world, considered a worthy audience by the Prime Minister himself, who I am sure had some intelligent conversation with the leader of our country, was then questioned by our entire society on the one thing it deems supremely important for its women: What she wore. The point of concern – her bare legs were disrespectful. Note to self: The country’s honour lies in a woman’s legs and Priyanka Chopra had just bared it all.

Then came the whole Ghoomar controversy. Apparently, Rani Padmavati could be revered only as long as she hid her midriff well. The makers of Padmaavat were successfully (i)ntimidated and promptly all ‘skin show’ was painted red. No matter her valour, her sharp mind, her companionship to her king, her role as an inspiring woman in the society and all else that the movie was trying to portray – a woman of her ‘character’ could not ‘demean’ herself by revealing a body part that was meant only to be seen by her King. Note to self: An entire community’s pride resides in their women’s midriffs.

Then, a couple of days back, Sabyasachi too stepped up to this melee. A brand I have always loved and dreamt of wearing, Sabyasachi proved he had a say too on my body. An Indian woman who didn’t know to drape a saree should be ashamed he declared. Women for generations had been wearing the saree while working, raising kids, cooking, cleaning. And there was no reason for that to change. The comfort of trousers could be left to the men who had abandoned their dhotis long ago. Note to self: The onus of preserving a country’s culture lies on a woman’s wardrobe.

Fine, I hear you. These are celebrities, let’s keep their world aside and descend into ours. When I was a student and just about 13-15 years old, there was one thing that I was told very strictly at school. I was to wear a dupatta as a part of my uniform at all times. This was because I possessed physical features that despite lying safely covered behind layers of clothing (at least 2, if not 3), still needed another that could deceive its shape. And although I never had to face such complex ideologies at home, I was surrounded by girls who did. Once a girl hit puberty she had to wear what was deemed ‘appropriate’. Note to self: Society’s shame lies in every girl’s bosom and dupatta.

Upon marriage, the world suddenly expected me to wear certain symbols that had the power to keep my husband safe – a bangle around my wrist, a chain around my neck, a bindi on my forehead and some vermillion on my head. A bare hand or neck on a married woman (especially newly married, till they finally learn to let you be) is met with glares and gasps. Note to self: A man and his family’s health and fortune depends on his wife’s jewellery and cosmetics.

A couple of days back, over a discussion with a friend, a story was shared where a man in her office in Bangalore made a derogatory remark on a woman who had dared to work in a sleeveless dress. Note to self: Professionalism in a work place begins with a woman’s upper arms. Many married women need to hold their pallus over their heads. Be it cooking, cleaning, raising the kids, whatever the task at hand may be, one hand always keeps the pallu in place. Note to self: The sole source of respect to elders is in the well-draped head of their daughters-in-law.

Thus, in summary, our culture seems to rely very heavily on its women’s bodies and what they wear. Legs, arms, head, face, midriff, bosom – our society’s rules for women have got them all covered (literally). What I have never understood is why a man’s body with nearly the exact same parts doesn’t have any social rules to adhere to? A man in shorts showing his legs is acceptable, but the same legs on a woman must be kept out of sight. A man sweating in the heat may well take off his shirt, but a woman opting for a sleeveless dress is blasphemy. When Justin Trudeau wears Indian dresses in India he is trolled for taking it too far (one comment read, ‘even Indian men don’t wear kurtas every day’), but an Indian woman having to wear Indian attire regularly is the need of the hour. A man wears jeans for comfort, a woman wearing jeans is tagged un-sanskaari by our esteemed politicians and hooligans awarding themselves a fancy tag of Moral Police.

What really saddens me in this mess, is the role that women play in it. Every time your bra strap shows, it’s a woman who slyly signals you to push the ‘obnoxious’ thing back in. Every time you forget to wear a dupatta in front of elders it’s your mother or elder sister that quickly wraps up your bosom with whatever lies at hand. Every time your pallu slides off your head it’s your mother-in-law or an aunt that nudges you to put it back in place. Ever wondered why? The answer lies in the one truth, the one baggage that women have been carrying along generation after generation – Shame. Let me explain.

I once visited a friend who was pregnant, with my Aunt. The friend had worn her pyjamas and a t-shirt at home even as she went about welcoming and serving us and her in-laws. As we left, the aunty lamented that the friend should cover up in front of her father-in-law and wear something that didn’t make her bump this conspicuous. I was shocked and asked Why. She said, “Because she must have some shame and not parade her bump”. I was at a loss for words – a pregnant woman needed to be ashamed of a natural stage of giving birth to a human life.

Shame. The one burden that every woman is handed over at birth and expected to carry around till death. And with every step we take, it is instilled deeper and deeper in us till we are expected to know of nothing but it. ‘Sharm ek aurat ka gehna hai’ – we are taught as a life lesson. Shame – The sole propriety of women, to be nurtured and preserved, more so than our own selves, for the sake of the society. They said, and we believed. And thus, we women must hold onto our shame with pride. We cannot eat crunchy chips for shame (hence Indra Nooyi’s new crunchless chips for women). We cannot burp for shame. We cannot speak loudly for shame. We cannot walk too fast for shame. We cannot dance before others for shame. We cannot shed our jewellery for shame. And we cannot wear clothes we want to, for shame. Note to Self: Women must live and die protecting their shame.

That brings us to, what next? Sure, we can carry forward our culture for generations, or we can slowly change minds. We can shame and criticize generation after generation of women for what they wear, or we can maturely recognize that the real purpose behind clothing used by humans – to protect ourselves from climate and cover our private parts – is not gender specific. We can try to layer women with clothes and jewellery – one for pride, one for honour, one for shame, one for culture – or we can simply change our yardstick and look at people’s words and actions instead of how they look! We can regressively keep asking women to cover up, or just accept that they have the same bodies and body parts that all mammals do. We can give them the choice and freedom to be the way they want, just as we do for the men, or wait for that generation when an article like this one sprouts from every woman around and they take their freedom by right.

So choose who you want to be. You could be that guy admiring the heights Priyanka Chopra has reached instead of mocking the length of her dress. You could be that Rajput who feels pride for the person their Rani was, and not the clothes she wore. You could be the Mother who teaches her daughter to give her comfort and her choice priority over what others say. You could be the Mother-in-Law who lets the new entrant be herself instead of making her the beacon bearer of your family’s regressive traditions. And finally, you could be the woman who wears what she chooses for herself and not for shame! Note to self: Throw the old notes out, Be Yourself!



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