Kerala temple dress code shows society still wants to dictate what women should wear

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.

Written by Radhika Iyengar | New Delhi | Updated: December 1, 2016 9:37 pm
Kerala Temple, Kerala High Court, Kerala Temple dress code, women dress code, Sri Padmanabha Swamy Temple, indian express news Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple was built in the Dravidian style and principal deity Vishnu is enshrined in it.

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.

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First Published on: December 1, 2016 9:34 pm
  1. N
    Nonsense
    Dec 1, 2016 at 5:26 pm
    Hypocrisy at its best. So what next, bikinis in schools, colleges and places of worship ?
    Reply
    1. A
      Anandan
      Dec 1, 2016 at 6:41 pm
      men also not allowed in pants or trousers. This is now equality before goe
      Reply
      1. R
        rsju
        Dec 1, 2016 at 8:18 pm
        liberals have lost their mind
        Reply
        1. K
          Kamala Nayar
          Dec 1, 2016 at 4:50 pm
          When u r in Rome do as the Romans say
          Reply
          1. L
            Lalita
            Dec 1, 2016 at 11:08 pm
            the writer is going berserk. men are also impacted by the Kerala temple dress code, not just women. its noteworthy that the author does not refer to Muslim countries where women are forced to dress in a particular way. why does that not evoke her self righteous anger?
            Reply
            1. M
              Murthy
              Dec 1, 2016 at 9:28 pm
              In Kerala's Temples, as Anandan says below, dress code applies to Men also. Author avoids mentioning it. Men in shorts are banned. Men have to be in dhoti and bare-bodied down to heir waist. Women may well feel some hurt that more restrictions apply to them, compared to men. That has to do with the Male and Female psyche that translates as Male is keener on the female Females seldom show any signs of distraction in male company, but males do in the company of females. Testostrones and Eaestrogens are two very different harmones. In many of God's Creations this difference applies. Finally, a Temple is a Holy Place for Worshiping the Lord of All, without distractions. In olden days, Men and women were asked to avoid heavy and shiny jewellery when going to the Mandhir, lest it would cause distractions for other worshipers.
              Reply
              1. X
                Xavier toppo
                Dec 1, 2016 at 4:26 pm
                if you don't like it,don't go to temple. if your logic is applied there should not be any sartorial code in schools and colleges also. actually what's yours is not alogic but an excuse to islamize the Indian society
                Reply
                1. S
                  Support Modi
                  Dec 1, 2016 at 4:57 pm
                  There is a code for men too. I was denied entry into Padmavati temple in Tirupati since I wearing shorts. I accepted that I good faith and learnt my lesson. The temples have the authority to decide what goes on. If one does not agree with that one need not visit the temple.
                  Reply
                  1. S
                    sam
                    Dec 1, 2016 at 9:18 pm
                    Avoid extreme in all matters.lt;br/gt;In the most liberal cultures we do not see bikinis even at work place forget in churches.
                    Reply
                    1. T
                      Tetris Karo
                      Dec 1, 2016 at 6:14 pm
                      Male chuvensa. Need burka in worship places? Where the male eyes going first when seeing a women? All like to see, but does not want others to see. Hypocrisy. 80 years back women were not wearing anything on top part. All were happy.
                      Reply
                      1. V
                        vinay
                        Dec 1, 2016 at 5:39 pm
                        So don't wear formals in corporate offices , just for the sake of disobeying. Just for sake of disobeying, wear yellow pant and red T shirt with a fluorescent green tie in your office meetings. Common guys wake up!!! There is some kind of sanity left in you??? What a sick article. True intolerence shown by author.
                        Reply
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