Madhu Purnima Kishwar
Profile of Madhu Purnima Kishwar

Madhu Purnima Kishwar is Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS)—a social science research centre, based in Delhi. Director of the Indic Studies Project based at CSDS aimed at the study of diverse faith traditions and cultures in the Indic civilisation. She is the ...

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    Madhu Purnima Kishwar’s Blog
    “I have a horror of all isms, especially those that attach themselves to proper names”.
    -- M. K. Gandhi --
    Posted on: January 24, 2013
    Clothed in Hypocrisy
    Selective Targeting of Dress Codes
    First Published in : Hindustan Times, January 24, 2013

    In recent years, rural community panchayats have come under repeated attacks at their mostly unsuccessful attempts at restraining young women from excessive use of mobile phones and from wearing “provocative” western outfits. We have witnessed outraged TV anchors and their handpicked panelists emote passionately for endless hours against such “Talibani diktats”. We are told the very idea of dress codes is oppressive, is anti-freedom. On the surface it sounds reasonable that each person should have the freedom to wear clothes of their choice. I for one would never justify use of violence or coercive means to “discipline” individuals.

    But those who pontificate total individual freedom for others feel rattled when you extend the same logic to their own lives. 

    For example, is it a coincidence that all male T.V anchors-whether of Hindi, English, Tamil or Marathi news channel, are dressed alike in black, navy or dark brown western outfits -- a full sleeved high collared shirt underneath a full sleeved coat and a tie to complete the brown sahib stylistic statement?  Even as a viewer, I break into a sweat seeing our anchors suffer this stuffed up western attire borrowed from cold-weather Europe. Since they are not subservient to any "Talibani diktat", I would like to know which master computer has programmed this dress code for all of India's male anchors? Why is it that none of them dares to come in a dhoti, or kurta pajama, a half sleeve bandi or even T-shirts, at least in summer months?

    Female news anchors may have moved on from the days when a saree was considered mandatory outfit for news readers. But most have adopted corporate suits, never topless gowns, halter neck blouses, dresses with plunging necklines or mini-skirts. Those dresses are reserved for women anchoring light entertainment shows. Even a classical music show would not be anchored by a woman in a mini skirt.  A woman news anchor may go wearing a backless choli-ghaghra to a late night party, but she wouldn't be allowed to host a serious talk show in such an outfit. Similarly, one wouldn’t walk to mourn a relative’s death wearing a bright red saree.  In India, it is an unwritten code to wear white on such occasions while in the west, people wear black.

    Clearly, every profession, every institution, every occasion has a written or unwritten dress code, not just in India but all over the world. But our self-styled reformers protest selectively against some. And the choice is revealing. For example, in post-independence India, we continued with the dress code imposed on young girls by elite English medium & convents schools with such pride and commitment that skirts and tunics were adopted even by ordinary private and many government schools as a mandatory dress code.

    Having studied in one such convent school where no other dress was permitted, I can say with conviction that a skirt is the most inhibiting dress for a growing girl, especially if you are studying in a co-ed school. You have to be forever watchful about positioning your legs in a “lady like” manner so that you don’t reveal your panties or your thighs. When you are in the playground, you dread a fall not only for the bodily hurt it may cause but more for the embarrassment of your skirt flying high and revealing your guarded secrets. During the days of menstruation, one is even more self-conscious in a skirt. I still have unpleasant memories of my school days when a favourite tease of boys used to be to lift a girl’s skirt from behind with a foot ruler or come and stand underneath a hanging jhoola to peek underneath girls’ skirts. They would then compose limericks on the colour and shape of our under garments.

    Moreover, in the freezing winter months, wearing a skirt is a real torture. But, schools even in snow covered hill stations insist on girls wearing the same old knee length skirts during the icy winter months. A few elite schools have adopted pants, but if you ask for the freedom to wear salwar-kameez in a school that prescribes pants for girls as the compulsory dress code, you will be told that such “behenji” outfits are not tolerated. Why do we ignore that this too amounts to cultural enslavement and denial of free choice for women?

    It puzzles me that over six decades after independence, nobody feels offended at the dress code introduced for judges and lawyers by our colonial rulers being dutifully followed by our legal fraternity. The heavy black gown with a necktie to boot not only constitutes an aesthetic assault but is a plain nuisance in summer months. Would a lawyer become less competent if he wore a white kurta pajama? Similarly women police are expected to wear tight belted khaki pants which are highly inconvenient during pregnancy. Is salwar kameez not a more suitable outfit?

    As for restrictions on the use of mobile phones even the “ultra- modern” families in Metros all over the world are worried about the adverse effects of addiction on children and youth to mobile phones and related gadgetry. Even in classroom, they are busy texting messages, downloading pornography, exchanging smut or simply twittering late into the night. Young men use the cell phones to video record and broadcast intimate scenes with girlfriends as a blackmail technique. Many educated urban families have begun to strictly restrict mobile and internet access. In cities they are called “enlightened”. But rural families become Talibani for wanting similar controls.

    The message is clear, 

    a)   If you are coerced to ape western style clothing, no matter how inconvenient, we should embrace it as a step towards “liberation”. But even a mild advisory that we should stick to more convenient traditional outfits is dubbed as a sign of backward obscurantist thinking and Talibani temperament.

    b)   Parents, teachers, community elders are not allowed any say in matters of dress code and larger matters of social morality. This privilege is exclusively reserved for Metro based self-appointed social reformers and zealous TV anchors who have taken on the mantle of "civilizing" Indians since our colonial rulers were made to leave India without completing their historic mission.


    And we call these imperious attacks lessons in liberalism and modernization!



    An edited version of this article was published in Hindustan Times on January 24, 2013 (See link: ) 




    For one, I am glad that you hunted the possible hypocrisy but I don't seem to remember of any TV anchor/journalist who criticized these panchayats/schools for telling girls to wear skirts for saving them from cold. The main reason that they say they criticize(and what reaches us as viewers) seems to be the 'End goal' that the "Diktats" are perceived to attain.
    You did focus on the possible reasons for the girls to wear salwar kameez but why dint you take into consideration the timing and the reasons that seems to have been given for passing the 'salwar wearing rules'?
    Limited point is that of course it'd be better for being left to a person for what s/he wants to wear, but is it the same thing when a whole lot of girls is supposed to change their dresses in the backdrop of preventing molestation by men?
    Posted By : Saransh, On Date: Thursday, January 24, 2013
    Basically, I like you but sometimes you become contrarian just for the sake of it. You have to distinguish when such Talibani diktats are a symbol of subjugation and the need to keep the women in their place and I think the order of Khap panchayat is the thin end of the wedge. As far as skirts in school are concerned, they look more stylish and graceful on girls.
    Posted By : amit manuviraj, On Date: Friday, January 25, 2013
    A well written and thought provoking article which is so true. But we have a media which does not want to hear any thing different
    Posted By : Raj shekhawat, On Date: Saturday, January 26, 2013
    Good to see real expertise on display. Your conitrbuiton is most welcome.
    Posted By : Amelia, On Date: Thursday, March 07, 2013
    Dear Madhu,
    I recently started reading your articles (since you were the only coherent writer who was speaking sense on Narendra Modi) and I was immediately struck by your rigor in writing. It has been so long that I have read such well researched articles. You should be awarded a Padma shri for each of your article. Irrespective of that I award you with best Journalist of the world prize. From my little world to yours. :)
    Posted By : Mani, On Date: Wednesday, April 03, 2013
    dear madhu ji,
    it was a great pleasure reading such detailed articles titled MODINAMA , i appreciate your hard work but whatever you wrought has been THE TRUTH.
    on a sad note,a common man like me just do not understand why the national media can not give credit to NAMO for the piece on communal riots front in last 11 years in gujarat and why dont they blame any of congress chief ministers of earlier time when CURFEW was a common phenomenon in lives of 5 cr gujaratis ?
    Posted By : bhavesh naik, On Date: Monday, May 27, 2013
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