Dressing appropriately: a cause for concern

My 11-year old daughter. She loves shorts ever since she took to them recently. Shorts: her favourite choice of clothes to wear, no matter where she is headed. To the park, the mall, the movies, down to the colony where she plays with her friends. Anywhere. She has a couple of them in different colours. And she hopes to get more, one in every colour, she tells me. But not any will do for her. She has a set idea about the cut and design of the kinds she wants to own. And about the kind of top that will go with it. Or the belt. If I was to show her one that she wrinkles her nose to, she tells me why the belt loops were not the kinds or the right size that she had in mind. And yes, the cut. “The cloth shouldn’t stand away from my leg, Mamma,” she educates me. “… or stick too close,” she tells me another time. “OK,” I tell her, having finally understood the nuances by now, and show her another one (which also have pockets quite the like one that seems to be all the rage in fashion magazines). But she only rolls her eyes at my (nonexistent) sense of fashion, and laughs, hugging me right there, her tall figure covering me almost completely already. “No, Mamma, this is all wrong, all over,” she says, still laughing, pointing out to me obvious errors in the shape that I had, of course, brazenly missed. She is polite, my kid. “Wait, let me find the one I want,” and takes it over from me. And I gladly hand over the reigns to her, my only condition being that what she ‘likes’ stays in my budget. I have begun trusting her judgement. She knows how to choose clothes that make her look like the 11-year-old she is. Tall, lanky and very athletic. And proud of her body already. That’s almost everything I was not at her age.

It was late on a Tuesday night, when she had joined me on the deewan where I was doubled up over that day’s newspaper, freshened up after my day at work, trying to catch up the events of the day. I must have been frowning as I read about the rape in Delhi. I had not realised that I was shaking my head too, until she pointed it out to me and asked me what I was reading about.

Trying to remain as politically correct as I can be when relating gory incidents to a 11-year-old, I narrated to her, in bits and pieces, about the incident. But soon, I could sense she was shutting a part of her mind, bordering to what I imagined was disinterest. I tried to change tracks. Because despite the rights and wrong, I needed her to know that the world she was growing up was getting colder by the day. And gruesome. I needed her to know what she needed to do to ensure she was never a victim. “We live in a world that has all kinds of people roaming the world, baby,” I told her. “I want you to learn whatever it takes to remain safe and strong. I mean…” I was stalling now, not knowing how to tell her any more, trying to absorb the words, as if, out of the wall at which I realised I was staring. When I turned back to look at her, she was crying, tears  rushing down her sweet face. “Please don’t ask me to stop wearing shorts, Mamma,” she told me. I was agape. Could she have understood what I was trying not to say, in my angst of protecting her in any manner I could?

But I didn’t need to tell those words to my daughter. Hadn’t too. By now, she had heard a couple of ‘concerned’ aunties around her point it out to her. “Beta, ask your mamma to buy you track pants to wear over these short skirts when you are returning from your Tennis coaching.” “You should ask your mother to get you longer Tennis skirts.”

And these are educated women, earning a living mostly, assisting in their husbands businesses, talking for the men around them. Because they have been taught that men cannot be blamed if they molest a woman. It HAD to be something that the woman was wearing. Something she said. Or did. Does.

And then there are the educated men, men who grew up with me, classmates, college types, scoffing the women’s lib for advocating plunging necklines. It, obviously, had a direct bearing on the increasing number of rape cases across India, they said. So if a woman wore revealing clothes, she was only calling out for a man, loudly, to let loose his libido on her. If she resisted his advances, we called it rape. If she didn’t, we called her a slut. Simple. Because she shouldn’t have called his attention to her in the first place. “Makes sense, doesn’t it,” I am asked.

No. It doesn’t.

I don’t get it. I mean, none of these overtly sensitized gentlemen or women of the world I have seen robbing a patisserie, or justifying it, just because the chocolate and caramel goodies are lined out in display, as enticingly. And neither do these enlightened men accuse the patisserie owner of enticing them with those ‘goods’, or judge their character. What gives them any ‘right’ over women??

I grew up in Kerala. Lived in Cochin for 23 years. The most happening of all places in a state that’s applauded for its matriarchal society. The most modern of the lot. I grew up wearing salwars. Hadn’t worn a pair of jeans until I was about 23—almost close to marrying the man I had dated for three years. But ever since I was old enough to walk the streets there, I remember being greeted by penises of different sizes, thrust out for my attention, in different manners, at different corners. At bus-stops where I waited to board the bus to college. In the private bus that I took. At flower shops. The bakeries. At the temple. But I never raped them. I remember wanting to pelt them with stones, though. Or bring the cops to them.

But regardless of how the men there chose to show their ‘manhood’, I remember being fondled, cajoled. Teased, stalked. Followed on my scooter. Poked. Fingered. All of it. Whether I wore a sari to work or salwaar. OK, so I was not raped. Not physically. But I grew up wondering what about me made men make those lewd remarks. Made them chase after me. Screaming expletives at me. I grew up hating my body… not knowing what I was hating, but hating nevertheless a part of me that invited any of those comments. And many of my friends growing up in the land shared similar stories and the confusion of why they were targeted.

It took me a while and, of course, a change of city, but I have grown out of my days in Cochin. I now wear what I want to. Wear it how I choose to, even if it means revealing a little cleavage. And I love my body. I don’t care how out of shape it has become since I stopped exercising. I am comfortable with my curves and flaunt it when I can, when I feel like it. If anyone thinks that’s me calling for someone to rape me, well…

But talking with the husband about it in the context of our daughter turned into a heated debate. He is concerned, I can see that very clearly. “All I am saying is that she needs to dress appropriately,” he said, trying to end the discussion. And I flare up. “Despite being a journalist,” I hear myself scream, “if I can’t make my daughter first think of herself and not the society’s perceptions of what a woman should be….” He accuses me of idealism. And I tell him that he doesn’t realise what he is growing her into… teaching her and molding her into what he thinks she should grow into. The conversation ends on a tart note.

When the heat dies, and as I get ready for work, I can see all that’s worrying him. His helpless inability in protecting his daughter from retarded minds who think they can dictate the course of a society. But then I know that if he can’t protect her, hiding her won’t help her either. Women get raped because some men believe they can assert their power thus. And coming from where I grew up, I know that no matter what anyone wore, demented men like those found a ‘reason’ to fondle women anywhere. Dressing ‘inappropriately’ is just an excuse. And this frantic call for women to dress appropriately, a big cause for concern. Because we are still missing the point.

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