Dressing to Please

01 Jun

I guess I should be happy I can wear clothes at all.

Do any of you remember the slew of articles that came out in the wake of 9/11 when people (in the West) suddenly sat up and discovered that there was a significant – significantly Muslim that is – population of women out there who walk around covered from head to toe?

Reporters were dressing up in burkhas to walk the free streets of London to find out first hand what it felt like (Answer: confining, scary, got stared at a lot. Alternative answer: safe, confining, got stared at a lot.); there were roundtable discussions on newschannels about what it meant to be an Arab and a woman and a Muslim and how they could make it all work (Answer: Arabic for “adjust maadi!”); and everybody was very concerned about how this was a violation of human rights.

I thought it would slowly fade away because it’s not like Muslim women just started covering up. I’m pretty sure they were wearing those things even before 9/11 and all they got in return were double takes and stares. But no, they’re still at it.

Meanwhile, lots of Muslim women went, “Thanks but we’ll drop you a note when we need you to talk for us because right now all you’re doing is creeping us out.” Turns out a lot of these women really like wearing the hijab/niqab to various degrees and saw it as their ethnic wear. Then a bunch of other Muslim women spoke up and said, “Hold on! We never signed on to this! Doesn’t our opinion count?”

So then everybody went back to the drawing table and it was finally decided that it was terrible that some countries (*cough*Saudi Arabia*cough*) control what women wear but if the women themselves want to wear it, then that’s because they’re brainwashed victims but hey! at least we told them so now it’s on their own head and let’s get real here for a second, is Saudi Arabia really going to pay attention to what the rest of the world thinks about how they treat their women? Ha! So enjoy snorkeling in a hijab, ladies! We hear the sea around your country is awesome. The Israeli end of it anyway.


My last year of high school, right before the Board exams, my friends and I were casually sauntering past the library on our way to catching the mid-morning bus home. Seniors were invited to come in a for a couple of hours each morning and put in some extra practice under the concerned teacher’s supervision if they felt they needed it and a bunch of us thought it was an excellent idea: we’d study in the morning, hitch a ride back to town, get something to eat at our favorite hangout before going home to study some more. Teen life in a small town where everybody knew who you were and what you were supposed to be doing was always a matter of extreme forward planning.

We didn’t have to dress in uniform and could pretty much do whatever we liked in school as long as we didn’t disturb the rest of the students, which was fine by us. It was like having a picnic every day and we thought it was a great way to end our school life.

So on this particular day, we’d just wrapped up and were about to go find the school bus when we heard the librarian screech: “There she is!”

We turned around and there she was, finger pointed dramatically and accusingly at… me. What had I done?

“Look at her clothes!” she screamed as though I was poking holes in her eyes.

I looked down. I was wearing my baggiest jeans, the ones that had never fit me properly but I loved to wear because it was so comfy. You could just see its shapeless legs peeping out from under my tent-like pink t-shirt, the one so large, its shoulder seams hit halfway down to my elbow. Not that this gave me a cleavage of any kind, mind you: like all Indian t-shirts sold within the country, it had a round neck that was so tiny, it would have strangled a person of the right size.

So I stood there in my hobo outfit, wearing flat ballet slippers, and completing the look with greasy hair, thick spectacles and a mouth full of steel and rubber. Damn, I thought. I should have listened to my mom when she told me I looked like a bum.

“What are you wearing, Amrita?” asked Miss X, the teacher we’d come to meet this morning, the one the librarian had apparently been complaining to.

“Uh, jeans and a t-shirt?” I said, hoping for the best.

“Well, such tight clothes are not appropriate for school,” she said with a straight face.

I looked at her. She studied her nails. The librarian looked victorious.

“Ha ha,” I said at last. Sometimes the teachers like to crack jokes. Nobody ever got them because they were incredibly lame, but maybe this was one of them?

Nope. No such luck.

“Why don’t you wear something like your friends?” she asked.

I looked at Pops and Sangs, wearing tight-fitted salwar kameezes and identical WTF expressions. Contacts placed discreetly in their eyes and no braces in sight. Then I looked at myself. If I was so inclined, I knew who I’d find attractive amongst the three of us. (Hint: it’s not me.)

I opened my mouth to argue when one of my friends jabbed me discreetly in the ribs. “Jeans,” she muttered significantly.


Denim. Cloth of the Devil. It’s a wonder they let you buy it over the counter considering the accessories that come with it – a libido that won’t quit, teenage pregnancy with mandatory termination, the morals of a sociopath, a junkie-unwashed-hippie boyfriend, and an alarming tendency to take away the free will of all men in sight and turn them into slavering rapists by force! Oh, did I forget the Western Bug? It’s an advanced parasite that hides in your pants leg and drills into your bone, instantly changing your nationality, your morals and your personality.

For fuck’s sake! They’re pants! Durable, comfortable, easy to wear, easier to maintain, pants!

Tell that to the good fathers who ran the Catholic college I attended. In Bangalore. Shortly after I joined, they actually banned jeans on campus. No, I’m not 100 years old. This incident took place at the turn of this century, not the last. The fathers did it with the best of intentions – they were shielding the pristine minds entrusted to their care by anxious parents. I failed to understand then and I still don’t understand how wearing a skirt or salwar kameez to college protected our virtue whereas denims would absolutely destroy us.

What I did understand then, and continue to understand now, is that when you are a woman, the world is entitled to not just have an opinion about the way you dress but enforce it as well. As business school students we were required to dress in formal attire three days a week and were allowed to dress as we pleased the other two days.  The gender ratio in our class was five girls to about twenty boys. We studied together, we hung out together, we got in trouble together, we partied together, we paid the same amount of money to attend the same classes taught by the same teachers about whom we all bitched in the same rooms. For three days of the week, we were all equal. For the remaining two, five of us had an extra rule based on nothing but gender.

The ban didn’t last long, its utter ridiculousness becoming more and more apparent as the college tried to modernize itself into a sleek, Western-friendly environment in a city being touted as India’s Silicon Valley. India’s success brought down a rule based on lingering Indian bigotry. But I’ve never forgotten the sting of that relatively minor injustice.


The burkha is not a garment that I would wear. Unless I was hiding from the police or something. I don’t even wear a dupatta every time I put on a salwar because I often feel suffocated by things touching my neck, so the whole hijab-niqab bit is lost on me. I don’t care if it’ll make me feel warm and fuzzy like I’m back in my m0ther’s womb, I don’t want it.

Other women do for various reasons of their own. It’s hard to understand them from where I stand but you know what? They don’t need me to understand. I’ve never in my life put on a set of clothes hoping some random person I don’t know and will never know, somewhere out there in the big wide world, approves and understands my sartorial decisions. Why shouldn’t the woman who wears a niqab have the same right?

That said, Yasmin Alibhai Brown, a journalist I greatly admire even when I find myself disagreeing with her, makes a strong point when she says:

We communicate with each other with our faces. To deny that interaction is to deny our shared humanity. Unreasonable community or nationalistic expectations disconnect essential bonds. Governments should not accommodate such demands. Naturists can’t parade on the streets, go to school or take up jobs unless they cover their nakedness. Why should burqaed women get special consideration?

Why? Because there actually are women living in the West today who cover themselves not out of choice but because that is the requirement for stepping outside the house at all.

Take for instance the woman who was fined for wearing a burkha in Italy. Her husband thinks their only alternative now is for her to just stay where she’s put, where nobody else can look at her. A law meant to “help” her ended with her imprisonment.

Europe’s response to Islamic nations forcing their women to dress a particular way is to tell Muslim women living in their countries how to dress, thus isolating them even further. Well! That’ll certainly show those stupid women in Saudi Arabia and Iran and elsewhere!

Amazing, isn’t it, that the right and the left come at it from two completely different political viewpoints, but they agree on one thing: the best way to help a girl out is to tell her what to wear. Once you’ve taken away her choice in this one thing, she will magically find herself surrounded by a multitude of “correct” choices and the world will be a better place. For her and for you.

India doesn’t have this problem, of course. Shikha Dalmia thinks it’s because India has a secular ideal based in the tolerant strands of Hinduism. Maybe. I think it’s because conservative Hindus up north practice their own version of the burkha. Any Indian politician who runs around saying Muslim women need to set aside the veil runs the risk of running into hordes of pissed off Hindu men vehemently opposed to their women taking the pallu of their sarees off their face.


So, basically, I wanted to say: Argh.


Posted by on June 1, 2010 in Life, News, Newsmakers, Personal, Politics, Video


Tags: , , , , ,

20 responses to “Dressing to Please

  1. ajnabi

    June 1, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    Beautiful post, Amrita. I think women the world over can probably identify. My public high school (you know, public as in government-funded) had an absolutely draconian dress code. I once wore a sweater to school with jeans. It had long sleeves and a high neck. This was in February, in southeast Texas, so getting to be pretty hot, but I had issues and wanted to be covered at the expense of comfort. As I walked through the front door at the first bell, one of the assistant principals stopped me. “Raise your hands over your head,” he demanded. I obeyed. My sweater’s bottom hem lifted to an inch above my (90’s-high) waist. He wanted to send me home–an honors student, and by that point a merit scholar–for my violation, despite the fact that I had no pirouettes planned for the day and could not imagine flashing that inch of skin willingly to any of the animals masquerading as boys in my class. He put his hand on my stomach while me made his point. I think I made him uncomfortable, but he returned the favor.

    I honestly think the world is just like that: If you make me uncomfortable, you need to change. Not me. Trying to legislate against or in favor of that tendency is about as pointless as trying to keep some people from lusting by encasing others in a tent’s worth of black fabric.

  2. Veena

    June 1, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    Great post!It’s amazing how others (both women and men) feel the need to decide what a girl should or should not wear. Seriously, if you don’t like what someone is wearing, don’t look!! I loved your reasoning about the Hindu tolerance for the burkha! Yep, we love our pallus, ghunghats and dupattas too much to protest.

  3. pitu

    June 1, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    I could tell you anecdotes about my many visits to Qatar where most native women are clad in burqas. There is no other garment I despise more but honestly I just depsise the Middle East. And I say this as someone who’s traveled the world. Ideas and ideals we take for granted even in India are considered radical there. Blech. A visit to the Middle East can raise your BP the way no other part of the world can.

    Do you know that all flight attendants stepping foot on Saudi soil are required to wear a burqa? My aunt who flies with Air India always bitches about her Saudi flights where they have to don the garments right before the plane touches down. Which is one of the reasons I don’t have any sympathy for the Muslim world that argues their women should be allowed to wear burqas in Europe. They can’t have it both ways. When entering Arab countries, people are expected to kowtow to their notions but they certainly kick up a fuss when anyone else expects the same.

    That said, let women wear what they want. I find all sides of the argument- let them wear burqas/ let them not wear burqas/ letting them wear results in this/ not letting them wear it results in that…. just every aspect pisses me off.

    Also, one of the most horrid memories I have, is seeing a pregnant burqa-clad woman whistled at at Mahim Station, Mumbai. Wearing a burqa in summer and with a massive belly to boot, cannot protect you from the male gaze and/or any mischief anyone might be up to. If someone wants to be a dick, he will be a dick. Better buy a can of mace, I say, what’s a garment going to do?

  4. sachita

    June 1, 2010 at 7:27 pm

    hee haw.. just to let you know, in a city, east of bangalore – Madras a.k.a Chennai, we have achieved equality. there the Male students in some colleges are banned from wearing any printed t-shirts or in some cases t-shirts and in some extreme college even Jeans. That is how discrimination against woman alone was averted.

    PS: west has no clue of secularism which can only be achieved with considerable voting power with each religion i.e if you are a democratic nation.

  5. eclat

    June 2, 2010 at 12:45 am

    The point that nobody raises, is that these laws concerning a woman’s dress have all been to “protect” them from the male gaze. So why not change the direction/ intention of that gaze first? The college you mention in Blr, I think, banned jeans for women in order to protect their morals or chastity or some such bullshit- from whom- the boys, right? If they trained their wonderful male students to accept a woman in whatever she chooses to wear, where’s the problem then?

    It just pisses me off that MEN choose to make us suffer for their own shortcomings and insecurities. The sight of a woman’s long hair or slim ankles (or fat, whatever) drive you wild? Pass some sharia law that makes HER cover up, not one that makes YOU wear bloody black-as-night sunglasses that near blind you.
    Like you said… GAAAH!

  6. eclat

    June 2, 2010 at 12:53 am

    Oh… and don’t get me started on people who move to other countries fleeing their own repressive and tyrannical governments, in order to live a freer life, and then start expecting the adoptee country to bow down to whatever moral baggage they have brought along with them. Don’t like the clothes/ ethics/ freedoms available, why not go back? I hate that they want their cake and the icing too (to mangle a metaphor). GAAH twice over!

    • pitu

      June 13, 2010 at 2:29 pm

      100% agree.

  7. Anarchivist

    June 2, 2010 at 7:57 am

    A most excellent post!

  8. Bikram Agarwal

    June 2, 2010 at 9:02 am

    Thought for sometime, but then for lack of better adjectives in my head right now, I’d say – an excellent post, indeed.

    And, my opinion is – why hide the face of the most beautiful creation of god behind Burqa n Ghunghat…!! Let the world be a bit more beautiful. Obama, Osama, Times Square ka face dekh dekh k pakk gaye hai. 😛

  9. Katyayni

    June 2, 2010 at 10:03 am

    Right on!

  10. Shalini

    June 2, 2010 at 11:17 am

    I find it very hard to believe that any woman wears a burqa out of choice or her own free will. At best, women “choose” to wear it because the alternatives to not wearing are even worse. As your example of the woman from Italy illustrates – you either wear one and have some mobility or don’t wear one and have none.

    So, I don’t quite buy the “banning the burqa is restricting a woman’s choice to dress as she pleases” argument. My guess is that in most cases a burqa-clad woman is a sign of someone who’s already lost the battle to wear what she wants. So what’s the solution – fine/punish the MAN if his wife/daughter/sister/mother wears a burqa!

  11. dipali

    June 2, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    From the way women are supposed to sit,speak, behave, to the way they are supposed to dress- seems to be everyone’s business but their own:(
    I cannot imagine life with a hijab, but some of my hijabi friends wouldn’t be comfortable without it. And they do hang out with jeans and t-shirt wearing friends.
    Bechaarey jeans- nice and comfortable clothes turned into a symbol of wicked Western ways!

  12. Sue

    June 3, 2010 at 5:53 am

    LOL I remember jeans being considered the Devil’s Tool when I was growing up. Those silly, baggy, ’90s jeans.

    I agree that it’d be hard to demand that Mozzies take the burquas off here in India because of the pallu purdah, but it’s one of those things where I’m just grateful for the results, no matter the cause.

    I find it hard to talk to a woman if I can only, barely, see her eyes, but in my grandmother’s time men had to talk to unrelated women all the time without seeing even that, so I suppose I can suck it up!

    Remind me to send you my dad’s story about the Bihari dude who beat up the wrong woman because of the long pallus.

  13. ramesh

    June 3, 2010 at 11:05 am

    All your points are very valid and even though the topic is something entirely different but *cough*cough* why do you forget the conservative hindoos down south *end of coughing fit*(surely you know by now that us north indians don’t like to be reminded that we are quite the baboon compared to our southern cousins)

  14. Broom

    June 3, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    Not sure how I feel about this, Amrita. On the one hand, I abhor what the hijab stands for – you’re a woman and you have to hide your body and your face because you ought to be
    ashamed of yourself & shame on you if you don’t wear it because you’re a slut who is asking for it by tempting men. This is what it boils down to.
    And yet, like you said, banning it means that, yet again, women get told what to wear and what not to wear.
    Having said that, if I had to pick then I am on the side of banning it because I believe that most women who wear it are doing it out of compulsion.

  15. Amrita

    June 3, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    @ Ajnabi – CREEPY!! I can’t even imagine the horrible male teacher who made it a point to give little sermons about female morality every other week actually touching me. ITA about legislating.

    @ Veena – thank you!

    @ Pitu – yup, I did know that 😦 I should have included that in the post. If you notice, SA has been lying low on this whole topic, leaving it up to the Maghrebs to fight it in Europe. I remember a fire and brimstone article in some magazine from a female army officer stationed on a US base in SA who was pissed at how she had to dress and I often think of it when I read these articles about banning the burkha.

    @ Sachita – ahahaha! I wonder what was on them?

    @ eclat – oh, dont even get me started on that topic!! I wonder why more men don’t protest this line of thought. If the establishment was deeming me a rapist merely on my gender, I’d be pissed as all hell and asking them to take it back. And punching the lights out of anyone trying to prove me a liar.

    @ Anarchivist – thank you!

    @ Bikram – lolz. It is a difficult topic to start talking about, isn’t it? Everything sounds wrong! 😀

    @ Katyayani – 🙂

    @ Shalini – I’m sure that describes a lot of women but there are also women who see it as a religious requirement and an expression of faith. And then there are women who feel uncomfortable without it, like it’s turned into some kind of security blanket. So I think it is possible. But if people feel strongly enough to consider banning them, then maybe they ought to try and do something about countries who violate women’s rights blatantly without anyone saying anything.

    @ Dipali – thanks for the link! Yeah, that whole “this will keep you safe” line is BS. In fact, I’ve always believed that “seedhi saadhi” girls get more harassment than the jeans clad devil woman because harassers are more confident of getting away with it.

    @ Sue – omg! I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about that one. My dad went to Aligarh Univ. in the 50s and their classrooms were separated down the middle so if he ever met his female classmates even today, he couldn’t tell them from strangers. It’s weird but he said he soon got used to it.

    @ Ramesh – sorry, but the purdah is entirely on you 😀 South indians are much more civilized about it – we just throw acid on their faces or lock them up.

    @ Broom – yeah, i was really conflicted about it too which is why i held on to this piece for a long time. But i just can’t bring myself to choose.

  16. Le Embrouille Blogueur

    June 3, 2010 at 8:01 pm

    Wow …. it took me a while to finish that as I followed all the links. Slap in the face on a show like No Reservation. Kudos to the lady. Your post is so powerful and so much that we can relate to on a day to day basis. There are colleges in Tamil Nadu, where students have to be in formals (men) and salwars(women) purely because the founders think that is what is appropriate. Lol at your plight in the loose jeans.So typical. Very very well written !!

  17. Beauty Wailed

    June 3, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    You poor dear! Imagine getting castigated for being comfortably clothed in a cement-bag tee and baggy-like-it’s-nobody’s-bloody-business jeans. (I for one hadn’t so much as set eyes on a pair of jeans in my closet until college, but after that, “love at first wear” rendered me and the jean practically inseparable).

    If it makes you feel any better, I was ordered to kneel (along with other classmates whose school-uniform skirts narrowly missed the mandatory “one inch below knee” mark) outside the classroom for a full hour, come first day of school, in VII std. 😀

    (Btw, I still haven’t forgiven the tailor over at Sekhar Emporium by the Liberty bridge (Kodambakkam, Chennai) for missing my new-uniform-stitching deadline. Thanks to him, I had to wear the old, faded, shrunk (ok, I have only adolescence and not the fabric to blame for hurrying up and hoisting me a full inch) skirt for an unforgettable back-to-school experience. And did I mention there was hell to pay for “stylishly” folding your socks down to the ankles? Rule: The neck of your socks HAD to pretty much lock lips with the hem of your skirt — oh yeah, all the “action” the knee area was privy to; if only I’d been half as enlightened on the joys of extrapolation back then! And the boys. Well, they had their own set of issues to deal with also, in the dress-code department, among others. Nobody, mind you, nobody got off easy, as far as school “rules” go.)

    Not to belittle the blight that this whole burkha business is probably becoming, but sorry, I’m too busy running from the relationship police threatening to drape a burkha over my naked soul to care about the socio-religious police and their odd sartorial impositions, which I’m immensely lucky to have escaped (who said you can have it all?). 😛

  18. Reema

    July 7, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    great post! if a religious law is curbing freedom by imposing burqa, another law banning the same is not good enough to stand up against religion or change people’s views/beliefs. It may just make things worse as in the Italy news. Also a law banning something is as worse as a law imposing something like in a thing as personal as clothes!

    “Denim. Cloth of the Devil. It’s a wonder they let you buy it over the counter considering the accessories that come with it – a libido that won’t quit, teenage pregnancy with mandatory termination, the morals of a sociopath, a junkie-unwashed-hippie boyfriend, and an alarming tendency to take away the free will of all men in sight and turn them into slavering rapists by force! Oh, did I forget the Western Bug? It’s an advanced parasite that hides in your pants leg and drills into your bone, instantly changing your nationality, your morals and your personality.”

    Simple loved the paragraph 🙂

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