Women's clothing and social judgments

Just recently read a news article from Pakistan where a girl went to some party which had boys and returned late. She got raped. In the debate that stormed in the comments, two prevalent views came forth. The first was when someone commented that if she was going to wear revealing clothes and go to late night parties with boys, she would naturally get raped. The other was a more rational one that her clothing or habits don’t justify the man’s crime. It was widely denounced as repressive to expect her to wear conservative clothing. I think both sides have it right and wrong.

While it does make sense to be careful in an environment prone to crime or a society where crimes against women are rampant, it is no less than sensible precautions women the world over take. This isn’t about what freedoms we have, but how we exercise them in the culture we live in.

It isn’t about repression, it is about becoming an ambassador for yourself, for dressing so that you express respect for the values of the culture you live in. You don’t have to like them. I love wearing shorts and its really the best for Mumbai’s climate, but as a daughter-in-law in a middle class locality, I tend not to go out shopping in shorts. I’m not repressed. I am simply fitting in. When I go out to the shop, the point is buying stuff, not fending off ‘friendlies’ or getting eyeballed by everyone from street kids to disapproving grandmothers. Chances are, if I get stared at, its more likely to be because shorts would look so out of place rather than lecherous intentions. There is nothing demeaning in making circumstantial compromises. They don’t diminish your individuality. Check out Angelina Jolie when she visited Pakistan after the floods. Then do an image search for her name and check out what normal clothing for her looks like. Like I said, nothing wrong with dressing in a place-appropriate manner.

Similar things about being careful with personal safety. There is nothing wrong in asking people to drop you home safely, or taking precautions like not lingering in secluded places, wearing clothing and footwear that allows you to flee if needed, learning basic self defense or keeping handy something that could be used to defend yourself in order to flee – pepper sprays, etc. This is being careful. The point here is not who is at fault, but that it is our life getting messed up regardless of whose fault it is.

However, it is ridiculous to think that the woman is at fault for getting raped because of her dress or whatever. This kind of thinking is prevalent the world over. Men apparently have a tendency to outsource responsibility for their bodily functions when it comes to matters of shame, but I have yet to see a non-rapist man say that well, he’s managed to remain legal because he sees only modest women all day or something. The truth is that waiters in dance bars, surrounded by attractive, skimpily dressed women, expressly flaunting their sexuality, etc etc don’t immediately start having sex with them or someone else or even themselves. There is something called a brain that determines what we do with inputs coming in from our senses.

Of course the men are criminals and a social hazard. That is the tip of the iceberg. It is our social conversations that determine the foundations to this kind of thinking. If dressing modestly is attached to morality, it becomes an excuse for individuals in the society to judge other individuals unnecessarily and possibly justify crimes against them. Fact is, clothing and even clothing as an expression of character differs widely.

The Old British people had clothes that endangered their breasts falling out, but thought the sight of an ankle was scandalous. Traditional Indians in many areas of India have this thing about the sari draped over the breasts. They are okay with their daughters wearing salwar kameez or even jeans as long as they take a dupatta or a scarf. Never mind that the sari usually exposes your waist. Many modern women think the burkha as a symbol of suppression and an expression of denial of what a woman is, but are fine if a dress covers as much ground as the burkha, but doesn’t look like one. Many Indians are fine with western clothing as long as it ‘reaches below the knees’ or ‘is trouser type’ – as in doesn’t risk showing more than intended like a skirt could.

Other times, the reasons are more practical or scientific. Many mountaineers deplore the tendencies of fashionable adventurer clients who wear less clothes and have sun burned shoulders and dehydration headaches the next day. Many doctors are against the burkha because the skin doesn’t get adequate sunlight which is essential to the formation of good bones and overheating in hot, humid climates. Many Indian women find saris or salwar kameez too fiddly and clumsy for their kind of pursuits. It is impractical to wear too many clothes for swimming, and so on.

It is high time we started realizing as a society that dress has a purpose, and that purpose is directed by what the wearer wants. By deciding what another should wear, we are essentially saying that they are trying to do inappropriate things through their clothes. In other words, we are being judgmental and dominating. This is not respectful. This is not such a great idea, because no matter what you wear, chances are fiftly other people will find it silly.