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The 21st century politics of college clothing

By Shilpa Phadke And Sameera Khan

The move to impose a dress code is a response to the anxieties that today, women will wear spaghetti straps to college, tomorrow they will have careers, the day after refuse to be chaste Indian women, the next week make love to the wrong kind of men, the next month declare they prefer women to men, and from there who knows what else

The French government insists that Muslim women do not wear headscarves, Sikh men do not wear turbans and nobody wears their religion on their sleeve to school. The Iranian government insists that women wear not just the headscarf but the chador. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) is convinced that jeans are a provocative and un-Indian form of dress. Some maulanas take offence to Sania Mirza wearing skirts on the tennis court, claiming it is un-Islamic attire. Universities all over India appear to be in a race to institute what they think is the appropriate form of attire for their students.

What exactly is it that prompts varied groups of different political and religious persuasions, arguing often-opposing viewpoints, to legislate so stringently on clothing? Are the questions being debated so fiercely about clothing and accessories, or are they a smokescreen for something else? If so, what is this something else?

We would like to argue that this ‘something’ constitutes not one thing but a variety of different anxieties: for the French it is the pluralism of a mixed society in the context of opening European borders; for the Iranians, the VHP and the maulanas worried about Sania Mirza’s clothing it is the purity of narrowly-defined religion marked on the bodies of women; and for an apparently increasing number of Indian universities it is the contradictions wrought between tradition and modernity, the Indian and the global, the private and the public, the respectable and the sexual (if one were to use crass and ultimately often fallacious binaries).

On the face of it, it seems rather incredulous and contradictory that at a time when Indian fashion designers are successfully entering world fashion markets, we should simultaneously be discussing dress codes for college students. But if one digs even a little deeper, it’s not at all surprising -- in fact, it is perhaps the one that creates the other. The increasing visibility of global fashion (on Indian catwalks, advertising, restaurants and streets) and the perceived lack of ‘morality’ that goes with it creates no little anxiety in the minds of various self-appointed protectors of ‘Indian culture’.

Women’s clothing: its length, width, cut and even colour are all debated in the blame game of national-sexual politics. In April 2005, in the wake of the rape of a college girl by a police constable on Mumbai’s Marine Drive in broad daylight, the newspaper Saamna saw fit to blame women’s clothing for sexual harassment, admonishing women that these were bad times and they needed to guard their virtue. Shiv Sena leader Pramod Navalkar, never one to be outdone in the conservative stakes, nostalgically recalled the ‘good old days’ when girls from Ghatkopar did not venture out to Marine Drive (Saamna, April 25, 2005; The Indian Express Mumbai Newsline, April 26, 2005).

By the end of 2005 the backlash has become relentless: there appears to be no light at the end of this tunnel, as university after university, in apparent agreement with these views, sets about instituting a dress code.

Tamil Nadu’s Anna University has recently imposed a dress code on 231 engineering colleges that fall under its purview, banning jeans, sleeveless tops, T-shirts and tight-fitting clothes. The move has been supported by players across the political spectrum -- from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the Periyarist Dravidar Kazhagam, the Paattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Dalit Panthers of India (DPI). Interestingly, at the same time, in the name of ‘preserving Tamil culture’, there are also moves to prevent women from consuming alcohol and dancing in discos in Chennai (Outlook, October 10, 2005).

Orissa has become the first state in the country to introduce a ‘uniform dress code’ for college students. Not only are students banned from wearing sleeveless tops and tight jeans, they will now wear uniforms -- which have been specified as salwar-kameez for girls and trousers and full-sleeved shirts for boys (The Hindu, September 6, 2005).

Even Mumbai, an ostensibly liberal city for women, is not too far behind in the dress code politics. The vice-chancellor of Mumbai University called a meeting of college principals in July 2005, and a dress code for college students is now in the offing. 

As part of our research on a Gender & Space project, we asked students in Mumbai their opinion on a dress code. At first, our conversations left us bewildered. Students in figure-hugging T-shirts and sleeveless vests with messages that read: ‘Eye-candy’ or ‘Single & Unavailable’, were the most ardent votaries of the dress code, arguing the need for limits, boundaries and clothing appropriate to the space that is “the temple of education”. The unfashionable students, the ones in the oversized jeans and baggy T-shirts or salwar-kameez, and who by the most conservative standards were appropriately dressed, were the ones fuming about “patriarchal control of female sexuality”.

What’s so surprising about this? Nothing, those who have for years been pointing out women’s liberation votaries’ lack of fashion sense or femininity would argue. But, more seriously, feminism is not without its own prejudices and often demands a certain commitment to dressing austerely. Yet, it is also true that spaghetti straps and short skirts are often accompanied by the demand for a certain body shape. It is therefore not surprising that the ones espousing more conservative ideas are the ones also conforming to the new codes of feminine sexual desirability.

As liberals, it would be easy for us to react immediately by arguing people’s right to wear what they wish, to picket outside the vice-chancellor’s office to demand an instant abolition of the dress code, arguing that dress codes curtail our right to freedom to dress as we please. But this might confine our argument to the act of dressing and ignore the more complex issues within which they are embedded.

So, before we do that, it is important to examine both the sub-text in what the students are saying and what they are wearing, and the context within which they do so.

“Spaghetti and noodle straps are fine in a disco but not in a college,” said one student. “There is an appropriate time and place for all kinds of clothes,” said another. “You wouldn’t go to a disco in a nine-yard sari would you? It would be stupid,” argued a third. “Every place has a dress code, one lounge in Bandra refused two journalists entry because they were clad in salwar-kameez,” pointed out a fourth.

What these voices have in common is that they all belong to a specific class -- a class that knows that they can wear those trendy and ‘in’ clothes in their wardrobe somewhere where they can see and be seen. They are also saying, in different ways, that college wear is not important enough to stick their necks out for. “If we were told to wear only salwar-kameez to college, well, we wouldn’t like it and we’d protest, but ultimately we’d have to comply,” was the general collective sentiment.

While men’s clothing is also included in the ‘code’, it’s clear that the high levels of anxiety are directed at women’s clothing. Like other markers of national, regional or community cultural identity, the strictures surrounding clothing place women under greater scrutiny than men.

Some of the concern with regard to women’s dress arises out of fear. That by revealing a little bit more of her arms or her legs, a woman will invite unwarranted male attention and thus be more open to sexual harassment and violence, including rape. Even the judges in our courts feel that way. In a study conducted by the Delhi-based NGO Sakshi, among 109 judges, 68% said they believed that “provocative” clothes were an invitation to sexual assault (Outlook, November 3, 2003). But in our conversations with young women across Mumbai, it is clear that girls in salwar-kameez, even those in burkhas, are just as harassed as those in skirts. The difference is that a girl in a salwar-kameez will be able to garner more public support to thrash her perpetrator than the girl in a short skirt.

There’s another opinion we encountered that contends that women in tight jeans are harassed less because they come across as more confident, and molesters prefer to focus on those they consider meek and less likely to retaliate.

The other reason why society concerns itself with women’s clothing has to do with wanting to control a woman’s body and her sexuality, an idea as old as Adam and Eve and the apple in the Garden of Eden (remember, Eve got them kicked out of paradise). Women’s clothing, actions and behaviour are reflective of the honour of the entire community. A violation of their bodies is considered a violation of the honour of the community as a whole. Community honour may also be besmirched by women’s consensual actions, and steps are taken to ensure women do not have the opportunity to meet the wrong kind of men. For instance, in Indore, the Bajrang Dal has demanded that no Muslim men be permitted to enter commercial garba celebrations as they believe Muslim men will mingle with Hindu girls and elope with them at the end of Navratri (The Indian Express, September 30, 2005).

In Sri Lanka, some time ago, a school ruled that mothers coming to collect their sons must wear saris. The newspapers that took up this debate focused on the sari being a sign of “pure” Sinhala culture. Underlying the insistence on the sari was a deep chauvinism that attempted to project one community as superior and better than the others (Kalpana Sharma, January 2003, India Together).

The dress code debate then is about much more than clothing -- it encompasses ideas of family and community honour, community and national identity, appropriate femininity and masculinity, rules of endogamy and the drawing of a number of other boundaries. When we take on the dress code, these form the implicit sub-text of our arguments. As feminists, this places us at the locus of multiple contradictions. How do we assert that women have the right to wear what they desire without endorsing the mini-skirts-and-lipstick brand of market-modernity-led-liberation? How do we problematise the pressure on women to achieve gravity (and other natural law)-defying body shapes without suggesting that certain kinds of clothing are unilaterally bad? How do we articulate the need to promote the widest variety of choices, while articulating that all of these choices are located in contexts of class, caste, gender, race, community and sexual preference that influence our capacity to exercise them?

Yes, it is important to fight the dress code, but it is equally important to fight it as only one manifestation of a larger malaise -- where not just the way people dress is sought to be controlled but also the way they walk, behave, and exchange thoughts, ideas and affection. The largely unopposed move to impose a dress code -- with the media expressing faint disapproval at the pre-modernity of it -- is not pre-modern at all. It is a very modern response to the very modern anxieties that, today, women will wear spaghetti straps to college, tomorrow they will have careers, the day after refuse to be chaste Indian women, the next week make love to the wrong kind of men, the next month declare they prefer women to men, and from there who knows what else...

Acknowledgement

Thanks to Anita Patil-Deshmukh and George Jose for discussions on the meaning of dress codes

(Shilpa Phadke, a sociologist, and Sameera Khan, a journalist, research issues of gender, space, citizenship and respectability in Mumbai, as part of the PUKAR Gender & Space project. They recently made an audio documentary on dress codes -- Then they came for my Jeans (12 minutes). If you’d like a copy, please write to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

InfoChange News & Features February 2006