Clothing & Control

Posted: August 14, 2010

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juggling_time4.jpgA young Muslim woman in Kerala has recently petitioned the Courts, asking for protection from fundamentalist elements who are forcing her to adopt purdah. One must applaud this young woman for her courage – this is a society where all kinds of people think they have the authority to dictate what women must or must not wear. While the HC has come to her rescue, there will be many who think that she is only asking for trouble. 

To some, jeans are ‘Western’ and indecent; to others, headscarfs are a symbol of ‘difference’ and therefore not allowed. To still others, as in this case, headscarfs are a symbol of religion and must be worn. What is common to all these enforcers, regardless of the backgrounds they belong to, is a feeling that women must be controlled. Still others will justify these on the grounds of ‘respecting the wishes of elders’. 

Why is is that we never hear of the ‘trouble’ with allowing young men to wear Western clothes? It is assumed that trousers and shirts are ‘normal’ for men, whether Indian or Western. Women, on the other hand, must uphold the symbols of their cultures or religion. All the furore one hears over women wearing the hijab or burkha – why is it that this is never an issue for men? Simply because most men, even from Arab countries, don’t feel obliged to wear traditional dress once they are out of their countries. I bet the fundamentalists in this case don’t pay much heed to what young Muslim men in Kerala are wearing – when it comes to women though, they want to have their say.

Underlying it is the fear that when women become ‘too independent’, they will start thinking for themselves. You can’t sell them like cattle – they may even marry someone of their choice from outside the community, GASP! Fundamentalists often couch this desire under other pretexts such as, ‘women are the honour of the community,’ but if women are that honoured, how about letting them choose for themselves how they’d like to dress, work, live? 

The desire to control women’s clothing is part of the mentality that treats women as the property of a community, however couched this may be in the language of affection or dignity. 

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  1. “The desire to control women’s clothing is part of the mentality that treats women as the property of a community, however couched this may be in the language of affection or dignity. “
    very very true.
    One of my colleagues who got married recently, was returning home with her husband from honeymoon. Her hubby asked her to wear a saree before station arrived!! Prior to that she had been wearing a salwar kameez. And the sad thing is she did that using train’s bathroom!!
    Many women fail to recognize this desire to control behind these “harmless requests!”

  2. I only completed reading Kalki’s ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ for the fourth time and I still feel awed by the two leading female characters-Kundavai and Nandini. while the author ought to be credited for portrayal of a character it does require some research as far as historiical novels are concerned.And history does remember Kundavai for her role as advisor to Raja Raja Cholan. So we did have assertive women during the Chola and Pandiya eras.Similarly we talk of Rani Lakshmi Bai and other Rajput princesses including Akbar’s wife Jodha who married a muslim monarch but was free to practise her religion even after marriage.

    The society changed later. Initially the intention might have been to actually protect the womenfolk but later generations took to controlling them by whatever means. Men unfortunately have never been questioned or controlled. He coul do as he pleased but no questions were asked.

  3. Thanks for your comments.

    @Reema – that’s thing – all these are presented as “harmless requests” and “adjustment”, but we need to ask why there is this desire to control.

    @ Hip Grandma – true -Kundavai is one of the most independent characters. My issue with these kind of things is that irrespective of how they originated, they treat women as children who need to be ‘taught’ (and that is the ‘decent’ ones who present it in a good way!)

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