Of clothes, culture and comfort

I heard an interesting tidbit yesterday about one reaction to an exchange student who wears shorts to the Acad Block: that it raised “public morality” issues. I burst out laughing, till I realised the person saying it was serious. If he’d said it in front of me, I’d have pointed out to him that the “public morality” issue wasn’t her clothes, but the boys and men who thought the clothes justified their staring lasciviously at her. (I actually said lasciviously?!)

Now, since I wasn’t there when the said ‘he’ made his statement, I just muttered something about intolerant assholes, and left it to lie. Of course, things left to lie in that brain of mine usually tend to link up at random with other things and result in posts like this one, don’t they?

So, clothes and morality, huh? What’s new? What you wear reflects what you are, and all that. Of course my clothes say a lot of things about me: personal taste, whether I’m a neat person or not, what I’m comfortable in, what I consider ‘appropriate in’ a particular situation. But because I’m a woman, they apparently also reflect my sexual mores. Shorts, kurtas without dupattas, kurtas not buttoned up to the neck, clothes that show armpits, apparently all these say I’m sexually available.

And what’s more, since being sexually available is not ‘our culture’, these clothes are not ‘our culture’. But a saree, which shows my waist, and can be quite suggestive, actually, is fine. It doesn’t say ‘slut’. If worn with a bindi and hair tied up neatly, it could say ‘schoolmarm’. It is totally cultural.

The problem isn’t just with being labelled because of what you choose to wear. Sometimes, I may even choose what I wear depending on how I want to be perceived. The problem is with the easy linking of women’s clothes to their sexual choices, and their sexual choices to ‘culture’.* Through the lens of patriarchy, women become symbols, carriers of society’s standards, statues, banners, flags to be waved, maybe even idols to be worshipped: anything but people.

Thanks to being an avowed feminist and still wearing sarees a lot of the time, I keep getting asked whether there is a ‘dress code’ at the Uni that requires me to dress in a particular way. After all, a feminist wouldn’t dress in a culture-heavy symbol like the saree unless she was being dictated to, would she?

It never seems to occur to those who ask that question, that a feminist wouldn’t let anyone dictate what she wears, either. The popular myth of feminists as burning bras to make political statements ignores the statement itself: that we have the right to choose what we wear based on nothing but comfort – just as men do.

*The point could probably be extended to appearance at large, and not just clothes.

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One Response

  1. I can totally understand wearing a saree for comfort – I’d have to get used to handling the draperies for getting dressed, but once that was sorted I imagine they’re very comfortable indeed. And the fabrics!

    These purity tests are wearisome, aren’t they. Being a feminist doesn’t mean donning a uniform straitjacket.

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