Posted by Alpaxee Kashyap
The women’s movement in India, at present, with the help of various institutions have managed to generate awareness about various kinds of discrimination that women face at different spaces. Academic journals, grassroot engagements, media engagements, campaigns like #Metoo and #BellBajao have all contributed to it. This has enabled the possibility of constituting a shared understanding of various experiences that women face and have helped overall in the recognition of extreme forms of violence. However, although extreme forms of violence like rape, physical violence are recognised, what still goes unnoticed are the forms of everyday violence. Everyday violence inflicted by members of the same institutions (family, society, religion and nation) that the women belong to.
A week ago, a Facebook video of a woman shouting and blaming a girl for her short dress went viral. In this video, the women slut-shamed the girl for wearing a short-dress and also asked the men in the room to rape her. The empowered girls recorded the conversation and demanded an apology from the woman. Calling out the woman and shaming is definitely one way to help recognise the issue but I had two immediate thoughts.
One, this woman could be anyone. It could be anyone from my family, my society, my religion or my community. Are we all not familiar with the people around us who think like this woman? Two, it is important to understand the ideological origin of such thoughts and the politics behind it and take the discussion there. The autonomy of complete control over our bodies and what we wear – do we have it yet?
Throughout history, women have experienced their bodies in different ways. The body and its cover get constructed differently right through a woman’s life by forces of patriarchy, religion, capitalism, liberalism and globalisation. It is also experienced differently by different women belonging to different socio-economic categories.
This issue of control over women’s clothes by larger institutions is not particular to India. Various countries take different positions on the way a Muslim woman wants to dress herself.
Women have also always received contradictory messages about their bodies. Sometimes, it is glorified by ideal images of goddesses; sometimes it is expected to hold the honour of the /family/community/nation and then the same body is projected as shameful, embarrassing, , fearful and disgusting (Sabala & Gopal, 2010).
To illustrate this, let us go back to few specific times in our history.
During Partition in 1947, up to 75,000 women were kidnapped. In their own communities, Hindu women were kidnapped by Muslim men who were then treated as “untouchable” because of the characterizations of Muslim men as violent and dirty. Apart from this, thousands of women, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim women, were abducted, raped, forced into marriage, forced to convert and killed, on both sides of the border. Women were also mutilated, their breasts cut off, stripped naked and paraded down the streets and their bodies were carved with religious symbols of the ‘other‘ community (Butalia,2000). Therefore, protecting the women’s body became a symbol of community honour.
Clothes represent culture, a culture whose protector is the state. Therefore, in many situations, women have used ‘nakedness’ as a means to protest against the state. The example of July 1994 when a group of Meitei women staged a naked protest in the capital of Manipur against the torture, rape and murder of thirty two year old woman while in the custody of the Indian Army’s Assam Rifles Battalion or July 2007, when a twenty-two-year-old woman of Gujarat, walked in her underwear through the streets of Rajkot, protesting against police inaction in response to her complaints that her in-laws had been emotionally harassing, physically abusing, and even threatening to kill her for failing to provide a dowry and to produce a male child. Nakedness here is used not only to gather immediate attention but also to challenge the state against the same morality that they protect (Misri, 2011).
In a similar way, Shiv-Sena’s women Aghadi group displays how “front-stage” performative sites are deeply important in the constitution of the gendered political subjectivities. Political projects of the contemporary Hindu right have particularly relied on heavy visual imagery and the power of visual performance in their constitution of a pan-Hindu public identity- the use of the colour orange. The site of morchas, where women dressed in saffron saris with all the trappings of middle-class Hindu respectability and rituals (Bedi, 2007) are expected to gather in large numbers, display ideologies of the right wing. This shows the importance of clothes in displaying our culture and tradition.
This issue of control over women’s clothes by larger institutions is not particular to India. Various countries take different positions on the way a Muslim woman wants to dress herself. On one hand, the veil of a Muslim woman is seen as an emphasis of the differences and divisions between “Western” and “Muslim” values which is often a controversial symbol that represents a sign of backwardness in the Western so-called ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ countries and on the other in Islamic countries they are forced to wear veils by laws and customs that fit within each government’s version of true Islamic religion.
It has been argued that women’s clothes are the result of male conspiracy to make women subservient by cultivating slave psychology in them.
This is how religion, state and protectors of the state control women’s autonomy and this is why we need to get into the politics of being and belonging. We need to question the autonomy of an individual woman, question the objectification of women as holders of honour for the state, nation and community. This woman who spoke out belongs to the same larger institutions which we need to challenge.
Politics behind feminine clothes dates back to Susan B. Anthony’s words: “I can see no business avocation, in which a woman in her present dress can possibly earn equal wages with man.” It was argued that women’s clothes were the result of a male conspiracy to make women subservient by cultivating in them slave psychology. Feminine apparel was designed consciously to hamper women’s movements and thus prevent them from earning their livings except through marriage (Riegel, 1963).
Therefore, though many supported the voice of the girls against one individual woman, we need to take these voices and have the same support to challenge the larger institutions where such thoughts originate, garner and spread.
Alpaxee is a PhD scholar from the programme of Women and Gender Studies jointly conducted by Ambedkar University and Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi. She has a keen interest in everyday feminism, politics, history and is an avid traveller. You can follow her on Twitter.
Featured Image Source: The Atlantic