Tamil Nadu state government has advised employees in the Secretariat to avoid casual attire while on duty, reports The Hindu. An order issued by the Chief Secretary says that Government servants are required to wear “neat, clean, formal attire that is appropriate to the workplace setting so as to maintain the decorum of the office while on duty.” However, the section of the order detailing what “formal attire” encompasses of for women seems peculiar. It states that a female official “should wear a sari or salwar kameez or churidhar with dupatta of a sober colour.”

SOME TAKEAWAYS:

  • Tamil Nadu secretariat employees have been directed to wear neat, clean and formal attire to work.
  • While formal attire means trousers and formal shirts for men, for women it is salwar kameez with dupatta and saree.
  • Don’t trousers and shirts make for formal wear for women too?
  • Is it more about what is considered appropriate, rather than formal?

Are trousers and full-sleeved shirts not formal attire across genders? Do millions of modern Indian women not wear them to offices on daily basis in our country? Then why can’t female government officials do so?

While men are advised to wear formal shirts, coats and trousers, western wear is nowhere to be found for women in the directive. Are trousers and full-sleeved shirts not formal attire across genders? Do millions of modern Indian women not wear them to offices on daily basis in our country? Then why can’t female government officials do so? Gone are the days when formals only meant sarees and salwar kameez for women, and yet even today they are being kept from wearing what they may feel comfortable in.

This is not about casual versus formal dressing but more like what whoever drew these orders considers appropriate and inappropriate dressing. Hence western formal wear for women has been put in the category of inappropriate office dressing like t-shirts, shorts, jeans etc. Is this about being presentable or upholding cultural values? For centuries ethnic clothes have been pushed as an agenda exceptionally on women. Men in this country have long given up on dhoti, pyjama and kurta and moved on to the comfort and practicality of pants and shirts for office wear. But the minute women trade a saree for a trouser it becomes “westernization” and thus un-Indian and inappropriate.

What is wrong is the way women are devoid of their agency in the name of appropriate formal dressing here. Why must choices be made for women, and not left to them, when they clearly have options?

We do not remember signing up to be the country’s flag bearers of culture, it has been imposed upon us. I am not saying that there is something wrong in wearing sarees or salwar kameez to office. What is wrong is the way women are devoid of their agency in the name of appropriate formal dressing here. Why must choices be made for women, and not left to them, when they clearly have options? It is this curtailing of women’s choices which is inappropriate as it insults our right to equality.

Women have a choice in what they want to wear, even in the narrow spectrum that formal dressing provides. Government and private sectors, homes and offices alike need to let us make out choices for ourselves. Policing what they wear in the name of appropriate dressing is a misuse of the power placed in the hands of officials.

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Yamini Pustake Bhalerao is a writer with the SheThePeople team, in the Opinions section.  The views expressed are the author’s own.

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