Since time immemorial, women’s sartorial choices have been in the controlled grip of everyone, except women themselves. Men, especially, have been dictating the terms of this conversation forever, subject to their own notions of morality, propriety, and tradition that run parallel to patriarchy. Feminism, however, took shape to counter the male gaze narrative. It loudly proclaimed that in the discourse of empowerment, a woman’s clothes are to be no one else’s choice but hers. The agency to decide lies with the woman, and the woman alone. And yet, today we find that certain articles of women’s clothing aggressively receive pushback, either for not being empowered enough or for being too empowered. Cases in point, the bikini, the hijab, and the dupatta.
It’s a common belief today that traditional dresses that cover the body or the head must be discarded to opt for a Western look in clothes that “liberate.” On the other hand, the stronghold of traditional disdain for “revealing” clothes devoid of sanskaar shows no signs of relaxing. Both argue that theirs is the more empowering choice. But is empowerment valid only when it looks a certain, single way? When one option forcefully dominates the other, is that not dictatorial? Does that leave room for women to have an independent choice in the matter?
Notions Of Patriarchy In Traditional Dress
The concern liberal intellectuals put forward, when arguing against “backward” clothing like the veil, hijab, or burkha, is that these items stem from the most draconian understandings of patriarchy, which suggest that a woman must dress in accordance with maryaada. The family’s honour is upon her shoulders, and hence, she must abide by customs to prove her worth as a woman of virtue. But more than marking her virtue, it is understood that the veil covering parts of her body marks her husband’s propriety over her.
For instance, the Hindu practice of ghoonghat – which includes taking a dupatta to cover the head or the whole face – is tied closely to the traditional belief of laaj, which literally translates to ‘modesty’ or ‘shame.’ A 2016 survey by Social Attitude Research, India (SARI) found that between the ages of 18-25, close to 75 percent women in Delhi, 98 percent women in rural Rajasthan, and 90 percent in urban Uttar Pradesh practice ghoonghat.
Respecting Personal Choice Most Intrinsic To Empowerment
The connotations of the ghoonghat, which numbers suggest is a practice still at large, are no doubt regressive. And the idea of women being their husbands’ property needs to be shunned if gender equality must move forward. But at the crossroads of it, what if one discovers that the women, despite seeking emancipation, do not want to let go of their ghoonghat? What if the ghoonghat, as an intrinsic part of their identity, is precisely what imparts them the security they need, moving forward? Must they be forced to discard it?
Empowering a woman essentially translates to handing her due agency, over herself, her life, and most importantly, the choices she makes. Instructing her through didactic righteousness, otherwise, is as good as oppression itself. The need instead is to ensure that women who adhere to traditional clothing, which may rely on dated notions of patriarchy, are fully aware of the historical relevance of it. If despite full knowledge, they choose to retain their dupattas with the belief that it wouldn’t hamper their pursuit of equality and justice, then that should, unequivocally, be taken as the final word on the matter.
It should anyway be understood that true empowerment is a quest for equal opportunity, equal policies, equal safety, equal respect, and equal freedoms, regardless of gender, colour, dress, background, or physicality. A woman from Rajasthan, arms decked in bangles and a pallu over her head, merits as much an opportunity at employment or business as does a hip, urbane woman power-dressed in a pantsuit and heels.
Empowerment: Where Diversity Exists Without Discrimination
Similarly, in the case of the hijab. Worn by women in the Islamic world as a headcover, generally, in the presence of men who aren’t family, the hijab isn’t without its own historical connotations of female modesty and male propriety. But increasingly, more and more women are reclaiming the hijab from the clutches of the idea of male ownership to mark it as a symbol of agency and decision-making. Amazingly, society is learning to give respectful space to their choices. We reported recently how, after a long-drawn battle by some Muslim women, the New York Police Department will now allow for arrested persons to keep their hijab on during mugshots.
And isn’t that what gender empowerment is all about? To create a world where diversity exists without discrimination?
Alternatively, much has been said, and continues to be, about the lack of modesty or maryaada in a bikini, or skirt, or other skimpy clothes that go against the morality of respectable culture. And while this problem is predominant in India, it goes far beyond into even the most liberated of countries. For instance, this woman, dressed in a sports bra and tights, was told to leave a gym in Australia for “showing too much skin.” Evidently, the issue of judging women basis clothing is a pandemic. These labels of judgment are what we have to do away with if empowerment is to be achieved.
The bikini is not the touchstone of women’s empowerment, and neither does a head-to-toe covering always indicate a vacuum of individual agency. Empowerment isn’t and shouldn’t be instructive, least of all in something as personal as clothing.
Views expressed are the author’s own.