Uttarakhand— a hitherto non-descript state vis-a-vis moral policing— has finally managed to garner headlines in the national stage. Newly sworn chief minister, Teerath Singh Rawat, has stirred quiet a huge hornet’s nest with his statement on a woman wearing ripped jeans.
The statement is comprehensive, and touches on so many issues of perceptions around women, that little room is left, if not entirely absent, for ‘misquoting’. Firstly, it is made from the point of view of a man eying a woman (the male gaze). Secondly, ‘exposing knee’ wearing ripped jeans is just one aspect of his observation, with ‘gum-boots’ and ‘a lot of kadas‘ being the other two, which shows that he is concerned not just with skin-show but the entire way of dressing of an ordinary woman of the 21st century. But the most glaring aspect of the statement is the questioning of the woman’s parenting and morals in reference to her fashion/comfort clothing options. The essence of Rawat’s statement is nothing new.
Clothing not within a certain standard is linked to lack of morals, bad sanskaar, and inappropriate motherhood- that cut deep in the hearts of Indian women considered to be the embodiment of the honour of the entire clan- are frequently used to target women in one way or another. Along with this, the mother is usually assigned the chief duty of teaching righteousness to children through her actions, and is generally the first one on the receiving end for any such mistakes on her offspring’s’ part. However, coming from Uttarakhand, this statement on women wearing ripped jeans is deeply disturbing for more reasons. Not because of the ‘Uttarakhand is devbhoomi and women are goddesses’ gibberish. The tough terrain of the Himalayan state and the associated lack of agricultural productivity, necessitated the equal participation of women in all economic activities.
Ram Chandra Guha in his classic book The Unquiet Woods writes in reference to Uttarakhand, “Foreign travelers were invariably struck by the importance of women in economic life, in stark contrast to the male-dominated European agriculture.” Due to this, many rigours of gender differentiation like dowry, son-preference etc., is found to a lesser degree here as compared to other region of the contiguous northern plain. Most noteworthy, however, is the participation of the women of Uttarakhand in the public movements of the region–Uttarakhand State Movement, Nasha Nahi Rozgar Do Movement and the iconic Forest Movement (which effectively established Gaura Devi on discussions on ecological movements). Therefore, such a misogynistic statement on women wearing ripped jeans coming from the constitutional leader of this place undermines the role of the women in the state, and it is shameful and worrisome that such ideologies are gaining ground in Uttarakhand. Moreover, the mentality showcased by such statements is harmful to the already deteriorating condition of disadvantaged rural women in Uttarakhand.
But the discussion should not stop at this. Quite subtly, a connection is sought to be made by CM Rawat of an inappropriately-dressed, ripped jeans wearing woman to JNU; also, a negative image is being projected of NGOs. JNU is targeted by the right wing in India for ‘obscene activities’, along with being anti-national; and the central government is at loggerheads with some notable NGOs over issues of foreign funding and ‘anti-national activities’. And this-exploiting patriarchal sentiments of people to achieve political ends- is the main takeaway from the statement.
In a study conducted by professors of University of Toronto, Canada, and Michigan State University, USA, it was found out, by analysing responses to a message of Japan-China friendship by a Japanese adult film actor, that the discussion of nationalism from misogyny cannot be separated. Previous works have also demonstrated that the connection between masculinity and nationalism is sustained through various discursive strategies. Therefore, in the present India, when nationalism, jingoism and war-mongering have become the dominant ideology and house-hold discussions, it is perhaps no surprise that patriarchy is not only increasing, but is being used to achieve political ends.
To cite some past illustrations which point towards the covert informal institutionalisation of this phenomena in India- in June 2020 after actor Sushant Singh Rajput died by, what investigations are pointing towards, suicide, his partner, Rhea Chakraborty was subjected to intense humiliation in the media and openly insinuated by the mod and media as his murderer. A social media analysis conducted by five professors of University of Michigan concluded, “The events that followed (the death of Rajput) may tempt us to think that this offers a window into the ways that online culture has changed society and media in India. But the truth may be more chilling than that. While social media may have facilitated certain kinds of virality and speed with which the narratives have changed, the case and its victims are a reminder of ways the patriarchy is alive and well, and always readying its blades for the next execution.”
That the representatives of the ruling BJP openly accused Chakraborty compounds the problem. Another example is the legalisation of the narrative of love-jihad by some BJP ruled states of India, including Uttarakhand, and vociferous propagation of it by CM Adityanath. Many young Muslim men have been arrested as well for marrying their Hindu partners, under the new law. In 2009, a University of Delhi professor had this to say in EPW regarding love-jihad, “Hindu patriarchal notions appear deeply entrenched in such campaigns: images of passive victimized Hindu women at the hands of inscrutable Muslims abound, and any possibility of women exercising their legitimate right to love and their right to choice (sic) is ignored.”
That this notion found its way into law books in 2020, and that too by hasty executive orders, without discussion in legislatures is abhorrent, to say the least. In February 2020, 170 activists and women’s group had sent an open letter to Prime Minister Modi expressing horror over alleged hate speeches made by BJP leaders for using “fear of rape as a campaign message” during the election rallies in Delhi. Various data on the economic and social front also align with the conclusion that India is not treating its women appropriately. The female labour force participation rate in India is now less than that in the decade of the nineties. Making matters worse, a large percentage of women join the informal, unorganised workforce where they receive less wages than their male counterparts and have little or no relief in case of sexual and other abuse, and maternity and childcare. India also slipped 4 places in the Global Gender Justice Gap Index to a rank of 112 between 2018 and 2019. Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka with ranks 50, 101 and 102 fare better than us. The present statement of CM Rawat is in line with this larger scheme of things.
It is heartening to see a strong rejection and condemnation from all quarters of the statement made by CM Rawat; and that sexist remarks would now not be considered as insults. However, the statement should not be considered as and dealt with in connection only with wearing ripped jeans, and various political nuances and motives should also be analyzed and propagated. Ripped jean was born as a symbol of challenge to conventions in the USA, and in this case also the ripped jeans should be seen a symbol of challenging the entire gamut of misogyny.
Medha Pande is a Mechanical Engineer born in Nainital, India. Presently she is a law student and loves writing to satisfy her soul about varying topics and is a published writer in reputed magazines/news-outlets like Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), the Wire, the Quint, Hindustan Times and Down To Earth. She has gone to numerous slums for reaching out to people in need of legal aid. Her hobbies include photography, reading, bird-watching, nature-walks and watching movies. She is fascinated by the ‘Zero Waste Lifestyle’. She can be found on Facebook.
Featured image source: India Today