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A woman is free to wear whatever she wants, the problem lies not in her clothes but rather in the eyes of the gazers
I have a tendency to stay bra-less at home casually. Often my mother and elder sister would say to me “Don’t you have any shame?”
I’d answer them crisply, “No, the bra is so suffocating, it’s a matter of my comfort” and then I dust off my little google knowledge; for instance, research studies claim that women who wear a bra for more than 12-hours a day have a greater risk of developing breast cancer than those who don’t.
However, uncovered breasts were not always been a matter of shame. Mineke Schipper records that apart from protection against climate and animals, in the initial days of our human civilization, female breasts and genitals were proudly adorned with jewellery and tattoos that represented women’s magical power to bring new life into the world. They were however considered to have a destructible force which could bring calamity or destroy the evil.
In the Tamil epic Sillapatikaram, the protagonist Kannagi loses her husband due to the injustice of the King and she curses the whole city of Madurai while tearing off one of her breasts. Moreover, unlike our contemporary times, breasts never evoked sexiness but rather, they were considered the epitome of fertility.
Scholars are uncertain as to when women started covering their breasts. However they suggest, that in ancient Greece and Rome, with the changing role of women, the dominance of patriarchy led to the covering of breasts being imposed. The reason was that being considered a distinctive feminine feature, in order to protect them, they had to be covered.
Later on in the Bible, the discourse of Adam and Eve furthered the covering of the body on religious grounds. Thus entered the concept of shame. Along with the shame, sex also became a taboo for western civilisation, preferring the virtues of chastity and asceticism.
In Hinduism, sex is often associated with divine union as ‘ShivaShakti’ and many consider that it is the influence of Islam and Christianity that led to sex being considered abhorrent in our Indian Culture. Though now, the West is far more progressive than us.
The male ascetics and priests of India, often roam around shirtless. But a woman is never allowed to go bra-less or top-less. The more protective women become about their breasts, the more attentive men become to them. The paradox of this covering, Schipper claimed, was that the male obsession with breasts started when women began to cover them.
The major blow against India came with the arrival of the Mughals, who brought modesty and etiquette in clothing with their stitched and eloquent dressing. Following the tradition of their holy book, Quran, which sought complete covering of the female body to prevent sexual desires in men. However, it never suggested anything on male control. Their extraordinary custom of ‘Purdah’, meaning complete female seclusion, from public life really changed the Indian culture.
The veil, ghoongat, purdah, odhni, chunri or burqa, what is in name, all are synonymous with the dignity of women in India. The adverse effect of the ‘purdah’ was not only cultural but also physical and mental. Women become victims of loneliness, their ‘zenanas’ were hot houses which suffocated them leading to various diseases, weakness and early death as Hawswrith observed.
However, the Quran is often misinterpreted by many scholars moreover, the word ‘hijab’ never occurred in the Quran. Some take the veil as an only head covering, others stretched it from head to bosom and some interpret it as a face covering. Nevertheless, the Indian ghoonghat which initially began to protect the woman from the hot breezy climate of India is transformed into a compulsion by the influence of ‘Burqa’. The ghoonghat is additionally enforced by Manusmiriti which claimed for women subordination and idea of ‘pati-vrata’.
The literature and cinema also played an essential role in romanticising the veil by songs such as “Parda hai parda, pardy key pichy dilnashen hai”.
In the West, a similar effect of the claustrophobic situation of women can be seen in the women of Victorian era in the nineteenth century, who were restricted in their houses away from the public sphere. Gilbert and Gunbar analyzed their situation in their ‘Madwoman’ in the attic arguing against the patriarchal moral codes which leads to the depression in women.
A major component of the Victorian woman dressing, the corset, was also attacked by scholars who studied the adverse effect of it on the ladies. The extremely tight corset compressed the lungs due to which women faced problems in breathing. Due to this reason, their weak and feeble character is enforced in the Victorian period. By covering the female body by the imposition of the strict religious and cultural codes, the patriarchy suppressed the initial power of the female body as a unique gift of God to mankind.
The female body, thus, become merely a commodity, exchanged from one man to another as Luce Irigaray blatantly argued in her ‘This Sex Which Is Not One’. The shame never belongs to women but she was taught to be ashamed because as the well-known Indian proverb goes “sharm aur laaj to aurat ka gehna hota hai”.
Schipper argued these old sayings which are our cultural residue, ominously delineated women as inferior or evil. For instance, ‘Where the wife wears trousers, the Devil is the lord of the house’ is a German proverb.
Male body covering is relatively less restricted than female body especially in India. For instance, in rural areas or in mandirs compulsion of ghoonghat or chunni, in urban areas still mini shorts cause uproars among the gazers, jeans in Haryana is the provoker of rape because it shows the woman body shape as the Quint documentary depicted, sleeveless top is prohibited in orthodox families, hijab for a Muslim woman is never considered as choice. So, a woman should wear clothes which show less skin only then is a woman modest.
Clothing becomes the protection of a woman’s status, working as a shield of her chastity. Jasbir Jain revealed another path-breaking dimension of the same ghoonghat in her ‘Purdah, Patriarchy and the Tropical Sun’, the ghoonghat becomes a cultural symbol in the British Raj. It protects the heritage of Indian authentic culture and also prevents British intrusion in the Indian culture.
The female body covering thus became a political weapon against the domination of Britishers but the patriarchy never asked women what they want. Women involuntarily became that “custodian of culture”. Nevertheless, dhoti or kurta pajama is preferred by men usually on traditional festivals or rituals but for women, dupatta becomes her body part, unable to detach from her consciousness. In the same vein, she becomes the collective identity of her family, community and the nation.
Thus, clothes as a contributor in our culture holds religious, cultural and political forces which are unconsciously absorbed by our society. No matter what a woman would wear the problem lies not in her clothes but rather in the eyes of gazers.
Schipper argued the undesirable gaze from anyone reduces the body to a defenceless and vulnerable object. This difference is well defined in Francis Borzello’s ‘The Naked Nude’ where nakedness is pure and innocent but when somebody gazes at the nakedness, it becomes nude consequently leading to shame.
It is not only male gaze which contributes to the awkwardness of women but also the female gaze which is internalised by women of the society, a phallocentric vantage point.
Schipper, Mineke. A History of Dressing and Undressing Around the World: Naked or Covered.
Hauswirth,Frieda. Purdah: Status Of Indian Women.
Heath, Jennifer. The Veil: Women writers on Its History, Lore and Politics.
Picture Credits: Pexels
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