Short skirts, twitchy hands

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on January 13, 2018 Published on February 24, 2017

Illustration: Manjula Padmanabhan

Gaze and grade “The fashion industry constantly encourages young women to expose our bodies gift-wrapped and framed for men’s approval” ganesh prabhakaran

Gaze and grade: “The fashion industry constantly encourages young women to expose our bodies gift-wrapped and framed for men’s approval”. Photo: Ganesh Prabhakaran

Point of no say “It’s not as if there’s a choice. It’s either that or remaining closeted indoors, waiting for Daddy to find me a Lord Protector” sushil kumar verma

Point of no say: “It’s not as if there’s a choice. It’s either that or remaining closeted indoors, waiting for Daddy to find me a Lord Protector”. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma   -  The Hindu

After being groped in public, the author abandons the prescribed role of the Ultimate Victim. If the world cannot be changed to one’s need, the only choice is to change one’s self. She does it by avoiding triggers that could shame her and altering the way she perceives herself

There’s an issue that keeps coming up in the press and in social media — about women’s clothing. It’s been bothering me for some time. So I thought I’d discuss it with my 20-year-old self.

2017: Hi there, my scantily-clad, blue-mascaraed hormone-driven self! How are you doing?

1973: Just fine, my future, grey-haired crone self!

2017: Ouch! Okay, I asked for it —

1973: Let’s get quickly to this issue of women’s clothing. You’re familiar with the argument that regardless of how we dress, some of us fall prey to sexual predators?

2017: Yes. It’s based on the fact that toddlers and old women also get sexually assaulted.

1973: Well, I believe we should avoid extending that argument to cover all sexual assaults.

2017: Meaning?

1973: Meaning, that even though some assaults have nothing to do with clothing, other assaults DO get triggered by clothing. Young women need to recognise that in India today, to wear body-revealing clothes can result in being harassed in public. Yes, we should have the right to dress as we please. But we don’t need to function as frontline troops in a conflict that’s loaded against us.

2017: Are you suggesting we should submit to pressure from conservative right-wing forces who want us to be swaddled from head to foot?

1973: No, I’m suggesting that even while we demand to feel safe wherever we are, we must ALSO take responsibility for our fate. We need to be conscious of how we’re perceived and how clothes affect our own destinies. That’s what I call taking responsibility for our fate.

2017: But we’ve already agreed that so-called “modest” clothes do not guarantee safety!

1973: My concern with body-revealing clothes isn’t just that they expose a woman’s body to the gaze of strangers. I believe they also make us look vulnerable, like weak little girls who can be bullied and oppressed. They affect the way we behave too. Stiletto-heeled shoes, for instance, force us to walk with careful, mincing steps. Most of us cannot run or climb, go cycling or even drive cars in such footwear. Many girls become fidgety and self-conscious when they’re wearing short skirts or skin-tight jeans. Contrast the way older women — like you, for instance! — dress: you no longer wear tiny skirts, halter-neck blouses or five-inch heels. Why is that? And why does anyone think that wearing tight, revealing clothing is desirable in the first place?

2017: Surely these are the wrong questions! We should be free to dress any way we like!

1973: Maybe. But why DO we equate nudity with freedom? There are lots of situations when it isn’t practical to be bare-skinned. In the burning sun, for instance. Wearing “whatever we like” is an ideal, but it’s not necessarily a right. Many communities practise dress codes: turbans for Sikhs, covered faces in West Asia. In different times and different places, there are varying ideas about what’s suitable clothing in public spaces. In my era, men had to wear a suit and tie just to enter clubs and formal restaurants. But in your era, the French have outlawed the wearing of Islamic headscarves in public spaces!

2017: What bothers me is that you’re so willing to accept these restrictions.

1973: Paying attention to them isn’t the same as accepting them. I believe that for too long, we women have internalised a masculine ideal of how we should dress in public. The fashion industry constantly encourages young women to expose our bodies, gift-wrapped and framed for men’s approval. Most of what young women do to enhance our appearance is designed to appeal to men’s tastes.

2017: Wait a minute! What about those women who claim that they’re NOT dressing for the pleasure of men? That fashion and fine clothing are an end in themselves?

1973: In a sense it doesn’t matter. When we’re out in public we can’t control who sees us or who responds to the way we look. Even if women believe we’re dressing for the appreciation of other women and not for men at all, we can’t force men to wear blinkers and look away! Regardless of whose gaze we believe we’re dressing for, we get pinched and pawed and called insulting terms by men. They all assume we’re dressing for them and they’ve given themselves the right to react with physical assaults.

2017: That’s certainly true.

1973: I think it’s worth examining why the sight of older women in revealing clothes is rare. I believe it’s because men have routinely voiced their strong distaste for the sight of wrinkled or flabby bodies. Undressed or naked older women are hardly ever the central figures in paintings or sculpture, for instance. That’s one way of assessing how or what is considered worth looking at. Think of religious art: most figures of worship are represented as robust and physically strong. The Buddha might be an exception in that he is sometimes depicted in his fasting state, with ribs exposed and hollow cheeks. But I think you’ll agree that he has very few female counterparts. Female deities have firm skin, thick hair and well-toned limbs. If they’re not covered up they’re often shown to be full-breasted and broad-hipped.

2017: So your point isn’t just that women should reconsider their clothing from the point of view of “modesty”...

1973: My only point is that we should take responsibility for the way we look and behave in public. It’s such an obvious point to make and yet it’s become loaded with secondary meanings. Such as: if we admit to being responsible for the reactions of men towards us, then we expose ourselves to the argument that a rape victim was “asking for it” by dressing provocatively. But the two situations are completely unconnected.

2017: Because...?

1973: Because no one can want to be raped. It’s a contradiction in terms. The entire definition of rape is that it’s forced. It is defined as an UNWANTED activity. So it doesn’t matter how someone dresses or behaves, she/he cannot want something that’s defined as being unwanted.

2017: Well, this point has been argued over for decades. I don’t expect that we can change anyone’s thinking with semantics alone. Rather than get caught in that loop, I’d like you to talk about the moment when your own thinking changed. You were living in the working women’s hostel, in those days. In Byculla, Mumbai. Something happened which caused you to shift away from ordinary outrage at being groped on the street to something more nuanced.

1973: Yes. The story begins with me at the age I am now, walking down the median strip on that huge long road that crosses in front of Bombay Central. I’m wearing a tight purple t-shirt. As I’m walking along, two young men sharing one cycle pass me on the right. One of them grabs my right breast. It’s a very neat cup-and-release action. It’s not painful in the sense of bruising, or hurtful. Nevertheless, of course it shocks me out of my composure and I spin around. Then an odd thing happens. As I watch the two young men sail away, smiling and waving, my mind splits in two. In one half, there’s me, flustered and furious. In the other half, I’m channelling the boys’ amusement. I can see myself through their eyes and what I see is funny: a pair of large breasts bouncing down the street, like a pair of mangoes just waiting to plucked. They’re so thrilled at their exploit! They believe that breasts were created for their delight. My anger dissipates as I continue on my way, feeling thoughtful.

2017: You didn’t yell at them?

1973: Well, as you know, I never yell, right? In part because my command of Hindi is poor. In part it’s about refusing to melt down in public. Because being cool is much more important than admitting that I am in any way connected to the vulgar events of the street —

2017: — anyway, so go on. Get to the second incident.

1973: Alright. Once more, I’m on the median. Once more I’m wearing my favourite little tight purple t-shirt. Two boys are walking towards me. It’s the middle of the day, there are lots of other people around. I don’t notice the boys... in the sense, I don’t look at them. But as they pass me, one of them makes a gesture in the air. As of cupping a breast. Nothing else happens. I pass, they pass, I say nothing, they say nothing. I didn’t know then nor will I ever know whether or not they’re the same boys who were on the cycle —

2017: — and yet you felt as if all your internal buttons had been undone!

1973: Yes, but that’s not all. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that the whole thing was one giant set-up. I felt betrayed by everything I had been taught to believe about women and beauty and our interactions with men. The small local encounter between two boys and me broadened out into a grand spectacle. I felt as if I — and, by extension, all young urban women — had been set up to perform in a cosmic opera in which our role was to play the Universal Victim. Not only was I expected to know that boys will want to touch me, not only was I encouraged to wear clothes that will attract their attention, but, worst of all, I was told that I MUST find their behaviour hateful and I MUST feel ashamed for having brought that reaction upon myself.

2017: All right. Supposing you didn’t think of yourself as a victim: how would that help? The boys would still be out there, grabbing and gesturing.

1973: Maybe. But the least I could do was to refuse to play the victim role in the drama. And if I could do that, then even though the boys would continue playing their roles, I would no longer support their performance by feeling ashamed or outraged. That’s what they want of me, after all. So why should I give it to them? Why should I offer them the triggers that they can then pull to make me squeak and squirm?

2017: Ah, but YOU’re the one making the effort! Isn’t it unfair that YOU have to change — learn to be assertive, change your definition of shame — when THEY are the ones at fault?

1973: (long meaningful pause) Because: if I can’t force the world to change to suit my need, then I’ve got to change myself to suit the world. I’ve GOT to. In order to avoid falling into a bottomless pit of impotent fury about all that’s wrong and unfair. I mean, sure, I can hope that things will eventually improve and I can do my bit for inspiring those improvements. But in the meanwhile, I’ve got to face the situation for what it is. It’s not as if there’s a choice. It’s either that or remaining closeted indoors, waiting for Daddy to find me a Lord Protector.

2017: Surely changing one’s self isn’t exactly easy!

1973: No, but I did try — as you know. I avoided wearing tight or revealing clothes but, more than that, I walked with my head up and my shoulders squared in the way of someone who didn’t feel she had to hide herself. Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that the more I trained myself to think outside the Victim Role, the less behaviour I saw from “the boys”. All boys. It was as if, by changing the way I thought, I began to change the way I was perceived and responded to.

2017: Of course, that could just be age-related. As you grew older, you automatically became less attractive to Roadside Romeos and others of their ilk.

1973: Yes. There’s no way to conduct a scientific experiment, by turning the clock backward and running the tape of reality through it again. I can only report that for me, given the way I look, I seemed to be able to turn those wandering hands away from me by changing the way I thought and behaved. And dressed. I found it to be a relief and I’d like to share that relief with others.

2017: Isn’t it sad, though? I mean ... young bodies, women as well as men, are also lovely to look at. Aren’t we losing something by concealing that particular form of beauty? Aren’t we depriving ourselves?

1973: Of course, we are. But that seems to be the choice that urban Indian society has made. So be it then. A society has to earn the right to see us. If we’ve not reached that stage of civilisation yet, then... we’ve just got to accept the situation for what it is. And we women should stop making our own bodies available for target practice.

Manjula Padmanabhan is a writer, artist and playwright

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Published on February 24, 2017
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