There are some things fathers can’t do. For everything else, there is Barack Obama. For who but he as the leader of the free world could acknowledge that the length of his daughter’s skirt worried him. We never really heard daughter Malia on the subject though.
A lifetime and more away, Rabri Devi fumed over the shortness of the RSS shorts. She called them “shameful”. Bihar rival and BJP leader Sushil Modi hit back, calling her a woman of “19th-century mentality”, saying shorts were the latest fashion for both the young and old “to go to the mall”. We missed Rabri Devi’s and the BJP’s response to both, the century and the mall, but the RSS did drop its shorts.
Earlier this year, Priyanka Chopra found herself a subject of trolls for displaying her legs before Prime Minister Narendra Modi. She got back by showing them off again, with that of her mother’s in a shorter skirt in tow.
Last year, in the film Dangal, budding wrestling superstars Geeta and Babita Phogat stepped out in their Haryana village shyly pulling down the shorts their father insisted they wear, to have a chance on the mat. No word yet on whether that was sanskaari, though Sania Mirza could have answered on their behalf. Facing a fatwa once over her leg display, she shot back saying, “As long as I am winning, people shouldn’t care whether my skirt is six inches long or six feet.”
A wider world couldn’t separate White House from Vadodara, but clearly all have an eye on hemlines.
Growing up, each one of us had a life divided into pre- and post- “nikkar” period. We didn’t call them shorts then. And who even knew knickers? Some, including the RSS, euphemistically called them half-pants — which, the Oxford Dictionary tells us, is as Indian English as it gets. And fair enough, for many Indians, nikkars were old pants cut in half.
Boys got away with wearing those nikkars longer into adolescence than the girls, who couldn’t get their mothers to ditch those bloomers fast enough. But eventually legs had to be properly sheathed by all well-behaved people, particularly in company.
Some families had rules for girls about sleeveless shirts, others about only sari after marriage. We knew how to circumvent them, how much skirt to tuck in, sleeves to roll up, socks to fold down — away from parental eyes. New Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman perhaps knows the feeling, of all those censorious eyes upon her, as she switches to colourful salwars on the borders. But when in Nathu La, it’s better to be safe than sari.
Trust me, we don’t judge. For in our quest towards practical lower wear, we also flirted for a while with cycling shorts — a garment that stuck so unsexily that it reduced thighs to cylinders, and hence could pass off as “decent”.
Now with my daughter growing up, the height of her hemlines is a topic of discussion every time we step out of the house. But she did silence most of us one day when she enquired, of a well-meaning adult, himself dressed in boxers, whether he felt hotter than her in summer.
So are shorts empowerment, Union minister Smriti Irani wants to know. Ask any girl or woman climbing, riding, playing, sitting, sprawling, swimming, spinning, even standing in the wind. Forget the comfort — it’s freedom to know you can do all of the above without wondering who is watching your inner wear.
But the question isn’t really what the BJP leaders are asking, is it? It is one that rang out clearly from BHU, including from girls who stood defiantly before cops, in their chappals and shorts. Is it okay for what people wear to define them, they asked. How is what is acceptable for men to wear on a party stage, “indecent”, in Sushma Swaraj’s words, to even suggest for women, they might have wanted to know.
Like the police reaction then and the BJP response now underlined: It isn’t really what women will show, it’s what they won’t hide behind.
But yes, what would make shorts truly empowering is for anyone, Obama’s daughter, those aspiring Haryana wrestlers, Priyanka Chopra, Sania Mirza, my girl, to step out of home without having to check how much of their leg or those knobbly knees or unwaxed hair is showing. Or who may be looking. Including at the mall.
Yes, any Malia, Alia, Jamalia.
Oh we looked too, at the knees and the hair on the unadorned legs of the RSS men, till it decided it was time they covered up, ostensibly to keep up with the times. But without those shorts — costing “Rs 3 per waist inch” (that couldn’t have been nice) — and that glorious sight of grown men sheepishly squirming in their seats at their leg show, in a position women frequently find themselves in, RSS shakhas will not be the same fun again.
Unless of course it lets some women in. And doesn’t persist on seeing them as child-bearing vassals producing great patriots — one avowed objective incidentally of the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, which it sometimes, like now, dusts off as its “sister” wing.
Who knows, down the line, the sisters could be the ones wearing the pants. Or, is that the problem?