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Understanding the relationship between Indian women and skirts

LiveMint logoLiveMint 09-06-2017 Priya Ramani

Politicians and their overzealous Twitter followers should stay away from discussing skirts and their length. You never know how it might backfire. Most Indian women I know carry a lot of baggage about this loaded garment. Maybe it’s because so many were wearing one of these frilly creations when a predator first pounced and ensured we would view our bodies differently for the rest of our lives. Who forgets what they were wearing when they were abused, right?

Before you know it, you’re older and every time you wear a skirt you hear the line: “Sit properly, cross your legs, your panty is showing.”

I’ll let you in on a secret: Crossing one’s legs never stopped anyone from preying on a little girl.

Soon enough the voices graduate to “cover up”, “where’s your dupatta?” and “you’re going to go out in that?”

Before you try to shame an Indian woman in a skirt, you should understand the backstory of our relationship with this garment.

The most common skirt we remember wearing when we were mauled or harassed is our school uniform. Men have always found the uniform an invitation to attack.

Their gaze travels up and down our bare pre-teen legs, lingering until we feel extreme shame and disgust—not at the harasser but at ourselves. Though we learn to toughen up, ignore this gaze and be alert in public spaces before we learn our multiplication tables, it takes a lifetime to erase all this growing-up guilt. Adjusting our clothes is a habit we never outgrow.

If a skirt makes a man uncomfortable, maybe it’s because it reminds him of how he is addicted to underage girls. Remember to troll him, not the wearer of the skirt. He’ll back off when he realizes you know his sick little secret.

Anyway, some of us eventually graduate to jeans—because of the thickness of the garment, it feels just a little less dirty when someone “accidentally” rubs against you on your commute. Jeans have a protective aura. A couple of years ago, two Indian women even designed a pair of “anti-rape” jeans that came equipped with a small button that, when pressed, apparently sent a distress signal to the nearest police station.

Wearing a pair of jeans made me feel in control and confident in my 20s. Maybe it’s this very quality of jeans that worries conservatives who routinely elevate this workmanlike garment to attire-of-evil-seductress status.

Earlier this year, a Catholic priest (a man who goes to work every day in a maxi dress) said women who wear jeans should be “drowned in the sea”.

I wonder if he knows that these days even men who live in the Western hemisphere are clamouring for the right to wear skirts. Of course, it’s not about skirts as much as it is about dictating what women wear. Those of us who prefer wearing saris or salwar kameez face the same issues.

A Belgian university recently sent its female students a note suggesting a dress code for their graduation ceremony: “From an aesthetic point of view,” it read, “it is better for young women to wear a dress or skirt, and a nice revealing neckline.”

Out in the real world, female employees are routinely asked to wear skirts, and dress “feminine” for brand positioning. You don’t need to look further than airline-industry dress codes for women.

Workplace sexual harassment hits us in the face as soon as we enter an office—or maybe even when we go for our first job interview. This is a world filled with seasoned, repeat offenders who know that even in 2017, many women keep quiet because they don’t have the stomach for what will follow their complaint. Others still cling to antiquated rules: As long as he’s not touching me, I won’t say anything.

Hell we live in a time where there’s a thriving industry of taking pictures up women’s skirts from cellphone cameras. It’s no wonder that after a few years out there, some of us opt to go the Katherine Hepburn route, wearing pants to work. Others continue to dress as they please, ignoring the white noise around them. Once again: Not that it ever matters what we wear.

By the time we are successful career women—and we usually are despite all the effort we must waste in pushing away the hands and eyes while we go about doing our job—we finally realize that nobody can hold us back.

Let’s call it the Priyanka Chopra phase.

The Prime Minister invites you. You browse through your wardrobe. Pick out a floaty dress by Australian label Zimmermann. Its long sleeves, zero cleavage and knee-skimming length make you look formal without being overdressed. Add minimal accessories. Look in the mirror. Perfect for that Bollywood-star-turned-Hollywood-hotshot.

Yet, you get trolled on Twitter for not dressing respectfully enough for your meeting. Luckily, you no longer worry about what assorted strangers think about the way you dress.

Your Instagram comeback, where your mum and you both strike a leggy pose, is a smarter response than any insult hurled at you on social media. You idly wonder what would have happened if you had picked your white pant suit from a Danish label and the Giuseppe Zanotti stilettos (thank you High Heel Confidential) you wore to the Time 100 Gala last year. Would they have thought it too sexy or too aggressive? It doesn’t matter. You move on.

PS: By the time you’re my age (older than Chopra), you rediscover the joys of sitting with your legs splayed any which way in a skirt. Life has come full circle.

So every time an Indian woman wears a skirt confidently, remember she’s been through all these phases and finally reached the point of being comfortable in her skin

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable. The writer tweets at @priyaramani

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