It is disconcerting to know that women’s clothing has maneuvered the trajectory of many global conversations in the recent past. Dictating what they wear, or should be wearing, has always been considered a universal, social concern. This Tuesday, the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, decided to include churidars and salwars in its dress code for women, which earlier allowed women devotees to enter its premises while wearing a sari or a skirt-blouse. The decision to include churidar was prompted by the High Court that directed it to do so. However, on Wednesday morning the temple retracted from the churidar dress-code, after it faced public protests particularly from the Kerala Brahmin Sabha.
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Academic institutions have also often dictated what women should wear. In Sri Lanka for example, certain schools have underlined what mothers should be wearing when they come to pick up their children. While saris and long dresses were allowed, it objected to mothers wearing skirts or sleeveless shirts. This was of course, later banned by the Sri Lankan government. Two days ago, the Dutch Parliament in the Netherlands voted to ban the burqa in schools, hospitals, public transport and government buildings. Although it’s yet to be passed by the Senate, there are many who are cheering for it, including the far-right Party for Freedom’s leader Geert Wilders who went on to tweet that if he won the elections, he would “implement a full burka ban”.
In 1950s Europe, women wearing two-piece bikinis in countries like Italy and parts of France were policed and fined because it was considered “immodest”. In 2011, France imposed the burqa ban and in 2016 introduced the burkini ban. Both bans emerged from a fear of ‘the other’, which in this case was the Muslim community. The discrimination was against Muslims, of course, but those who predominantly had to bear the brunt were women, because it was they who walked in public spaces wearing the niqab, the hijab, the burqa and the burkini.
Whether it was the 1950s or 2016, on both occasions, it were the women who were singled out and derided for what they wore. When the controversial ban on the burkini was introduced, many argued that Muslim women were finally free from being compelled to wear a religious garment that symbolically enforced patriarchy. That their religion expected women to wear the burqa and the burkini is true, but the argument that the burkini ban truly liberated women was a grave presumption. By telling Muslim women what they couldn’t wear wasn’t really ‘liberating’ them.
France has been known for imposing “clothing” laws on women. It was only in 2013, that it finally revoked a 213-year-old law that denied women the right to wear trousers. Although in recent times this law was hardly adhered to by the French women, it still shouldn’t discount the fact that it existed. In India, Union Tourism Minister Dr Mahesh Sharma declared in August that foreign women should dress conservatively, thereby respecting India’s culture. “For their own safety,” he cautioned, “women foreign tourists should not wear short dresses and skirts. Indian culture is different from the western.” His statement, spoken “out of concern”, raised many eyebrows, leading many to question whether attire could prevent any woman from being harassed, molested or even raped in India. Or why the country could not focus on strengthening its security and law-enforcement apparatus, in order to ensure the safety of its tourists and civilians alike.
Historically, political and religious authorities have regulated women’s clothing, reasoning that it is “beneficial” for them; that it looks after women’s best interest. However, this reasoning proliferates and corroborates the belief that women are incompetent to make their own decisions, which includes their decision to wear something that is ‘socially acceptable’. It implies that they needed hand-holding, and in certain cases, a wagging finger, instantly reducing to them to children.
What women wear has always been regulated – in certain religions, the regulation spills into the marital sphere. In Hinduism, for example, married women have to wear symbolical markers – i.e. a ring, a mangalsutra (marital necklace) and sindoor (a vermillion marker) and in certain regions, even toe rings. Men on the other hand, are not expected to wear any marker, expect a ring. In 2nd century BC Rome, married and widowed women were expected to wear stola, a long, flowing woolen gown. Men in comparison, exclusively wore toga, a shorter, more fitted gown. If a woman was caught wearing a toga, she was immediately deemed to be a prostitute. The length of a garment worn, its fitting and how ‘revealing’ it is in nature – function as the barometers to measure a woman’s morality. It’s a truth that continues to exist today.
Society’s perennial paternalistic agenda of ensuring what women should wear, even in the 21st century, is one that has been established for centuries, by men who wanted to enforce patriarchy and control, but also interestingly, by women. While full and partial burqa bans across Europe, including Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and perhaps soon Netherlands as well, might signify that Europe is becoming anti-Islamist, it also signifies that it’s turning its back against women and their rights.