Deciding what to wear for a woman is not a decision based purely on comfort or aesthetics, but a very real and palpable fear, that of seeming ‘available’.
Across the country, in the metros, mini metros, towns and smaller countries, there are certain implicit codes of dressing in place that tell you what the average woman is comfortable and feels ‘safe’ wearing.
Among the garments which could be considered an indication of how ‘safe’ women feel are short skirts.
There appears to be a general consensus that women who wear clothes of a shorter length do so to attract attention, this, in turn, makes some men assume that they are open to unwanted sexual harassment or ‘they asked for it.’
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Sometimes garments are a social barometer too, women who seldom use public transport and have their own private transport, might not find it not a problem to wear shorter skirts, when compared to women who must travel via the local train or auto rickshaws and need to deal with the unwarranted and unwelcome attention.
I don’t understand the obsession with shorter clothes. My ovaries are not bursting and there is no estrogen rush in me when I see a man walking around in a vest and shorts
Unfortunately, the victim is often blamed for the assault against her with reasons as ‘mobile phone’ ‘chowmein’ and ‘they are just young boys who make mistakes’ given to justify. Perhaps this is why hashtags such as #sheaskedforit have started with a satirical video ‘Rape-It’s your fault’ becoming extremely popular.
SheThePeople.TV spoke to multiple women from the age of 16-30 from 6 different cities- Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru and Chandigarh, and the results varied from place to place. After talking to many, it seemed as if the city was safer if the women, in general, wore shorter clothes, unlike the general perception.
Neelam Saxena, a 23-year-old working lady from Delhi says, “there is absolutely no chance that I will wear anything that even reveals my ankles. I travel in the bus on a daily basis and men don’t leave a chance to touch when the bus stops, a hand would intentionally fall from the handle on me, saying “oops it slipped” !”
Hinting to the same thing, Isha Gupta says, “You have to be smart about what you wear and where. Go to Vasant Kunj or Saket wearing shorts or a dress, no one says anything. You wear the same in any other place, even the driveway of your own house, people will turn around twice to check how you look. It’s just the way it is and you can’t change it.” Isha is a 28-year-old manager from Noida.
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Delhi, infamously known as the rape capital of the country holds a record of 17,104 sexual assaults against women in the year 2015, accounting for 5.2% share in the total cases reported in the entire country. Apart from this, some of the most horrific rape cases are reported from the capital including the Nirbhaya case of 2012.
Going further North to Chandigarh, there was a news circulating in 2016, where the new administration had decided to put a ban on skirts and shorts in the city’s pubs. Bringing this to light, 26-year-old mother of two, Seerat Bhatia says, “I have always worn shorts and skirts because I feel more comfortable in them. The last year’s reports were denied by the government, but they were oddly supported by the general public. And that is when I decided to wear full pants when I went out of the house.”
“I don’t understand the obsession with shorter clothes. My ovaries are not bursting and there is no estrogen rush in me when I see a man walking around in a vest and shorts. Then why stop us? I understand that this is for our safety, but why to blame the victims and indulge in scapegoating?” says Mehar Kaur, an 18-year-old student from the union territory. Her friend who chose to stay anonymous said,
“ My father is very particular about what I wear. I have to start wearing suits when I graduate from my school, just like my elder sister. I don’t have an option of questioning that.”
Chandigarh has a total of 463 cases reported in 2015. There has been a rise in the number since then and women are even more scared to reveal anything over their knees.
Mumbai, is a place where women from North India, wear whatever they wish to without thinking twice. While some say that the weather demands shorter clothes, others say that this the culture; you will not be stopped or mishandled for your clothes. Perhaps this is why just 2.7 cases of rapes are reported per 100,000 women.
Katyayni Wagle, a 27-year-old event manager says, “I cannot function in jeans. I carry my trousers if I have a meeting to go to. Otherwise, it is skirts and shorts, I look for formal attire in that because my work demands it. It is impossible for me to imagine being stopped and looked at because of what I am wearing. If that is to happen, five people around me will step up to defend me. Maybe that’s why it is okay to wear whatever you want.”
Tanvi Siddhartha, a student of the Narsee Monji College, says, “I am from Bhopal, and before moving to Mumbai, I did not own anything that showed my legs. But here I feel comfortable and that is what most people wear. If I were to wear a bralette and shorts at Marine Drive, I will probably have people walk up to me and compliment me. I cannot imagine anything like that back home. My mom is surely terrified, but we’ve got to change that.”
“Chennai as a city takes pride in its culture and norms. We as a community need to respect it and that is why rarely do we find girls wearing shorts and skirts. Men and women continue to sit on different sides of the bus. So the western attire is still seeping in. But that does not mean we do not wear anything western at all. There are certain pockets where like minded people come. That is where it might be okay to wear whatever you want,” confesses Dayitha Iyer, a student of Delhi University who hails from Chennai.
Tara Padnabhaman, a 20-year-old primary school teacher from Chennai says, “I personally don’t care. I wear whatever I feel like. Surely people stare, but that is what they do. I have been told to respect the norms, but it is like a cage. I am careful when I am visiting my grandparents or going to the temple though.”
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Bangalore has 2.2 rapes per 100,000 women, one of the lowest amongst the major cities of the country. Saranya Gaur told SheThePeople that there are certain areas that are unsafe and they are generally the older parts of the city. Otherwise, it is usually safe. “We usually go out on weekends and we wear what we feel like. There are times when I have gone in my tracks and there are times when I have dressed like I am out for the Met Gala.”
However, such a safe sounding city was not insulated from rapes and sexual assaults. Bangalore had a series of crimes reported on New Year’s Eve. Numerous people had gathered at the MG road to welcome the new year when hooligans started molesting women and passing lewd comments to the extent that women started running towards the cops for protection. This left the city shocked, and the incident was plastered on all front pages of the city’s newspapers.
“Modesty is critical and crucial in Kolkata. But that is when you are walking the older parts of the city, in front of locals or travelling in public transport. Otherwise, it is okay to wear skirts and shorts. But you have to be extremely careful as to where you are going. I cannot comment on what others say about it but I prefer to play it safe and wear shorter clothes when I am out with my friends,” says Sharmistha Babu, an engineer from Kolkata.
The city holds a record of only 1 rape per 100,000 women. There are other women who are comfortable in shorter clothes and don’t feel stared at. “I come from a very liberal family that has been involved with Shanti Niketan for a long time. My parents have given me the freedom to wear whatever I wish for. And I do not feel uncomfortable at all. People stare, but not in a way that is offensive. There is a growth in the mindset and the acceptance level in the city and I am proud to be from here,” shares Brinda Chowdhary, an advertising head from the city.
However, history seems to corroborate these anecdotes. Modesty has had different definitions over time and in different regions and communities.
In Southern India, even in colonial times, some women did not cover the upper part of their body. In contrast to this, women from Northern India have always been covered.
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Evident in the sculptures obtained from all over the country, The Priest Head, recovered from the then Mohenjodaro, has a cloth draped around him, along with the Dancing Girl that is covered too. Despite this, the sculptures and the temple art from South India reveal bare torsos of women and men. Covering a woman’s chest has become the norm only in the last century, as earlier, Dravidian women did not do so.
Women from Maharashtra and Odisha drape their sarees in a way that highlights their curves. In contrast, women in North India have had a history of looser clothes and for centuries have covered their heads too.
In Bengal, during the Victorian era, some women did not wear blouses under their saris – they went bare-breasted. This did not suit Victorian society, which had its own ideas of propriety, and blouses increasingly became the norm.
In contemporary times, women wear a petticoat and a blouse before draping their sari. Wearing a Salwar-kameez has become an unstated uniform for women. It is perceived as ‘respectable’ for a woman to cover her body completely with a draped fabric now, no matter what is underneath.
Women do not ask for sexual assault. Women who wear so-called ‘provocative’ clothes are not doing so because they want to be molested. It is the mindset of the attacker and the intention of the man who assaults her that causes such a crime.
Inhibiting a woman from wearing whatever she wishes to wear is a sexist approach to curb the crime. Assaults against women is led by a desire to assert control and authority, and giving reasons like clothing, contrary to history and these statements, simply fuels the culture of patriarchy.
It is not the skirt length that is the issue, it is the male gaze.
All the data is from the National Crime Records Bureau’s official reports. While few have been quoted, SheThePeople spoke to several women across these cities.
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Jagriti Sharma Is An Intern With SheThePeople.TV