To wear or not to wear is NOT the question

Women are slammed for both showing their skin and covering up! What do they wear then?

Consent and choice are two words that have dominated conversations around women's lives over the last few months. While the #MeToo movement sparked discussions on the concept of consent (because many presumed that 'NO' is sometimes 'yes', 'maybe' and 'I-am-just-confused), the otherwise simple term 'choice' suddenly became political and complex.

While the battles that women fight daily when it comes to consent and choice are several, today let's focus on the latter.

Because 'choice' is fundamental to every human's life. Yet, women are questioned, ridiculed, tortured, and even killed for the choices they make, in society even today.

The basic of choices – choice to wear what they want – is almost always under attack almost everywhere in the world.

The sad thing is that these diktats are getting more bizarre by the day. For instance, in Thokalapalli, a village in Andhra Pradesh, women were ordered to not wear nighties in public during the day. As per the rule, passed by the elders of Thokalapalli in November 2018, those violating the rule would have to pay a fine of Rs 2,000 to the village development committee and those who ‘inform’ about such women would get a reward of Rs 1,000.  The reason behind such a rule?  The village committee comprising nine elders had received a complaint that men were uncomfortable with some women in their nighties going around the village grocery-shopping, dropping off their kids to school, or trying to get routine things done. All that mattered was that the men of the village were uncomfortable with what women wear while minding their own business. I wonder if the women felt the same about topless men in half-folded lungis walking around the village while passing such diktats.

I’m reminded of controversies in a school in Montreal where wearing a bra was made mandatory and some schoolgirls signed petitions against it, and another incident in Ontario where girls were suspended because their bra straps were visible. The instances are numerous: actresses have been slammed for showing too much skin, and even the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, was questioned for wearing a skirt that 'hit above the knee' (because focussing on her social work is too boring!) 

But then it is only women who must consider every other person's comfort and not their own before wearing something, and then getting slammed for it if they don't. For proof, search 'slammed for clothes/dress' on Google and see if you can find any man's name on that list. 

Now let’s talk about the other side of the coin of the freedom to choose, what a section of women calls 'freedom to cover', which has also been under fire in many countries. For instance, on February 1, two diagonally-opposite ideologies were celebrated on the same day. While one group commemorated it as the 'World Hijab Day' and called for a celebration of the hijab (the headscarf worn by Muslim women), the other called it the 'No Hijab Day' opposing the oppression of women and 'forcing them to cover'.  While the celebration on both sides in and of itself is not the problem, it is the attack on a woman’s freedom of choice that is bothersome. As much as the extremists who force women to cover against their will is a problem, people who ridicule women for wearing a hijab of their own free will also show hypocrisy by infringing on someone's basic right: her freedom to choose. How different is the Taliban punishing women for not wearing a veil from someone attacking a hijabi woman for wearing a headscarf? 

The main tenet of empowerment and feminism is hit when people begin asking women to not cover up because their idea of freedom does not allow a headscarf. The headscarf for many women is a symbol of the faith they practice and a way to express their religious choice. Just as women must have the freedom to not wear a veil or headscarf, women must also have the space to choose to wear a hijab if they want to. When one judges another’s choice of clothes because it does not match their idea of freedom, the fight for empowerment becomes hollow and exclusive. 

Here’s an example closer home: when Oscar-winning musician A R Rahman's daughter Khatija Rahman interviewed him during the 10-year anniversary celebration of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ in Mumbai, trolls attacked Rahman for Khatija's attire. Khatija was in full veil when she interviewed her father and celebrated his success, but all that the trolls could see was her attire, which she had to clarify was 'her choice' and not imposed by her father or any patriarchal figure. A R Rahman even tweeted a photo of his other daughter Raheema (in no veil or headscarf) and wife Sairaa with just a dupatta around her head, hashtagged #FreedomToChoose.

Yet again, the term 'choice' was under contention. Pieces were written about how Khatija had been brainwashed to believe that the symbol of patriarchy was a choice. But was it? When Khatija wore what she wanted, it was based on her beliefs and her choice, not because she was forced to. All that was expected of others was to respect it and not judge. It is but another side of the coin where we see things ignoring cultural and religious contexts, and a woman’s agency to choose what she wears. (I take slight liberty here to clarify that dressing for faith is applicable to men too. Even though religion has clear guidelines for men to dress modestly, maybe the patriarchal superiority stops most of them from following it. That's why the choice which should be based on faith and belief becomes patriarchal bondage and a one-way street.)

As much as women must not be forced to wear something, their choice to wear it should also be respected. Women bear the burden of patriarchy in different ways. If on one hand they are forced to wear something, on another, they are forced to show skin. Like the well-known American documentary 'Killing Us Softly' explains the ways in which patriarchy is always in action, objectifying women to suit the male gaze. Women are conditioned to dress and behave to please or attract men, and that to me is a much more offensive form of patriarchy in action. 

As if the length and breadth of a woman's clothing are not enough to decide her character and worth, a woman’s body type too is criticised for not being clad in ‘appropriate’ clothing ‘suited for her body’. God forbid if a curvy woman decides to don a bodycon dress or a slim woman wants to hide her frame in a billowing dress. Body shame is heaped upon all women, wherever they fall on the body type spectrum.

In the end, the real freedom of choice is when a woman can choose to dress however she pleases, without being held to society’s standards and scrutiny. The day women can wear what they want - skirt, saree, jeans, hijab, burqa or a nightie - without having to worry about permission or judgement is the day we would have attained the freedom of choice fully for women. Until then, we have many more battles to fight. Like #MeToo, for example.

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To wear or not to wear is NOT the question

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