India: the rapist’s veto?

Vanya Bhargav explores why Indian women are less free to express themselves through dress than Indian men.

We all like to wear clothes which make us feel comfortable. Attire is about more than comfort though, it is an important means by which people express their distinctive identities.

Most societies do not however have absolute freedom of attire in all contexts. Whilst the belief in the freedom for individuals to wear whatever they like in the privacy of their homes is perhaps uncontroversial, many people have more complicated views regarding attire in public. Indeed, most people would consider it inappropriate to wear bikinis or swimming trunks to a restaurant or workplace and in places other than specified areas such as beaches, swimming pools or saunas.

Freedom of attire is therefore often limited not only by law but by social norms, or informal understandings between members of a society regarding appropriate group conduct. Some restrictions imposed by social norms on freedom of attire are understandable. The attempt by one section of a plural society to impose its norms on another however entails a serious and illegitimate threat to the latter’s freedom of expression.

The norms about women’s dress in India have changed considerably in the last fifty years, when the belief which considers it inappropriate for Indian women to wear western clothes or show skin was more widespread. This started to be challenged in the late colonial era by a minority of élite Indian women who adopted western clothing and by the 1950s and 1960s many more urban Indian women had started to wear trousers. Today, more and more women in urban and even semi-urban India choose to wear jeans, tops and skirts. No longer are women who show part of their arms, legs or backs considered ‘immodest’. In the last fifty years, older social norms that held that Indian women should only wear Indian clothes have been consistently challenged, with norms that accept western clothes or showing skin now existing side by side. There are however repeated attempts to impose conservative norms regarding women’s attire on all Indian women. These conservative norms have never gained legal status and yet women are frequently policed to pressurise their adherence to them, limiting their freedom of expression.

Sections of Indian society that propagate such norms of modesty in women’s dress often label women who don’t adhere as ‘shameless’ and as flouting the honour of their family and community. Harsh judgement and pressure from their families has even led Indian sportswomen, whose professional attire inevitably reveals skin, to wear attire that is ‘less revealing’. The 2005 fatwa against former world number one doubles tennis player Sania Mirza is just one of many examples in which freedom of dress was curbed in the name of community honour. This policing of women’s attire acts as a means to patriarchal control and subjugation of free expression.

Indian tennis player Sania Mirza at the Citi Open Tennis Finals 2011, by Keith Allison. (Creative Commons Attribution) Image link:

Another frequent excuse used for curtailing women’s freedom of attire is that it is for their own safety. This is most evident in discriminatory dress codes which continue to be imposed on female students by numerous colleges and universities across India despite being banned by the University Grants Commission, India’s regulatory body for higher education. Some colleges have variously advised against or prohibited the wearing of leggings, shorts, tight pants, or sleeveless shirts. Some have insisted that women wear the Indian salwar-kameez and pin their dupatta, the long scarf  which is the symbol of modesty in India, properly across their chest, sometimes even dangerously over laboratory coats. In 2016, one women’s college in Delhi still carried out checks on length of clothes and the neck-line to ensure that students did not ‘expose’ themselves in the presence of male cafeteria staff.

Such policing reveals that college administrations also hold the patriarchal and sexist belief that men should be free to wear western clothes or show skin but believe the same freedom should not extend to women because this would ‘naturally’ arouse men to harass, molest or sexually assault them.  The belief that the cause of such incidents is women’s clothing, rather than the failure to respect the notion of a personal right to choose, means that college administrations sometimes end up absolving men of all responsibility, putting the onus on women alone to be safe by ‘covering up’.

Women’s freedom of attire is also curbed by those who genuinely fear for the safety of family members and friends. Women are therefore asked to ‘cover up’ in public in the desperate hope of ensuring their safety. The most important cause of these requests by family and friends is the awareness that often, when women have faced vigilante groups playing moral police or sexual harassment and assault, state forces have abdicated their responsibility to enforce the law and protect its female citizens. Politicians have too often used the same sexist, patriarchal logic to leave women responsible for their own safety. This was evident in the remarks made by an Indian minister who attributed the mass molestation incident in Bangalore on New Year’s Eve 2016  to the victims’ choice of western clothing.

This abdication by the state is mainly responsible for allowing Indian women’s free expression to be repeatedly attacked by the heckler’s veto. Or is it rather the rapist’s veto?

Vanya Bhargav is a doctoral student at the University of Oxford.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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