On July 19, a girl was killed in Uttar Pradesh’s Deoria for wearing jeans.
Yes, you read that right. Killed for wearing jeans, the hapless 17-year-old suffered this fate at the hands of her own grandfather and uncles.
Her ‘crime’: on moving to Punjab, where her father is employed, the teenaged girl developed an affinity for ‘Western’ clothes and took to wearing them, even after returning to UP and despite being told to stop doing so by her relatives, according to news reports.
After a violent argument in which she hit her head on a wall, collapsed and began bleeding profusely, her grandfather and uncles got alarmed and tried to make it look like an accident. They attempted to achieve this by throwing her jeans-clad body off the Patanwa bridge on Kasya-Patna highway.
But in a final act of defiance, the teenager’s body got stuck on the metal grille of the bridge and dangled from there for a few hours, before someone informed the police and investigation commenced.
If you are shocked by this, even mildly, you are not alone. Yet, the truth is that the mentality that leads to such incidents prevails across a great swathe of our society.
After reading about the incident described above, I was reminded of a remark by a friend’s father who told her “tujhe nanga karke chaurahe par khada kar doonga” (I’ll strip you naked and make you stand on the road crossing) because she wanted to wear pants and not traditional clothes, as a 13-year-old, living in the capital of a northern state.
I am privy to incidents in which male cousins have molested their female relatives, who, oblivious to such a possibility, would sleep on the terrace of their ancestral homes during hot summer months. Even at that age — 20 years ago — these female cousins of mine knew that nothing will come off raising the issue with their family. And so, they quietly suffered and tried to push such incidents to the back of their mind.
Judging women for wearing certain type of clothes — conveniently branded ‘Western’ — is nothing new. Any woman who has been born in or has lived in South Asia has been privy to casual derogatory remarks, carefully-planned ogling and touching in public spaces and institutional denial of such occurrences.
While it may seem bizarre and rare, taking someone’s life on grounds of sartorial policing is neither new nor sporadic. Denying women agency over their choice of clothes and by extension, over their bodies, is the oldest weapon in the arsenal of patriarchy.
From an early age, girls are forced to consider the effect their clothes might have on ‘others’ (read: mainly male relatives, friends, passersby). Sometimes, this is achieved by female relatives criticising their sartorial choice. At other times, the obnoxious remark or lecherous look of a passerby produces the same effect. Mostly, however, it is a woman’s in-built sense of ‘inviting as little attention as possible towards herself’ that guides her choice of clothes, in public and in the privacy of the home.
Last month, the Prime Minister of Pakistan caused a stir by linking women’s clothing choices to sexual violence, for the second time in a row. He is not alone — as the head of a government and occupying a public position with immense influence — to hold such controversial (to put it mildly) views.
Asha Mirje, an NCP leader in Maharashtra (and a woman, to boot), Abu Azmi and Ramashankar Vidyarthi, affiliated with the Samajwadi Party and Mohan Bhagwat, RSS chief — these are a few prominent names in India that readily come to mind when dealing with the issue of assigning blame for sexual (and non-sexual) violence on sartorial choices.
Showing exemplary insensitivity and callousness, Asha Mirje said that rape victims may have invited attacks by their clothes and behaviour.
Abu Azmi took it up a notch by saying: “Such incidents (like the Nirbhaya gang-rape) happen due to influence of Western culture.” He was joined in this chorus of the morally-hideous by Ramashankar Vidyarthi who held the opinion that: “Men and women are built differently so they should dress up accordingly. They should dress in such a way as to not appear obscene. Rapes would continue till obscenity isn’t put a check on.”
However, taking clothes-bashing to the next level, in 2013, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had said, “Such crimes hardly take place in Bharat (rural India), but they occur frequently in India (urban areas).” Lacking any evidence to back his claim or perspective, Bhagwat was quoted as saying, “You go to villages and forests of the country and there will be no such incidents of gang-rape or sex crimes. They are prevalent in some urban belts. Besides new legislation, Indian ethos and attitude towards women should be revisited in the context of ancient Indian values.”
Evidently, if this is the gamut of opinions held by public figures, political leaders and people in influential positions, is it any wonder that so little progress has been made on this issue?
But then, it’s easier to pin the blame of the assault on the victim. It’s not so easy (or at all) to confront and punish the ugliness, depravity and evil that drives people to commit such acts.
The fact that sartorial picks have nothing to do with sexual violence and persecution has been sought to be highlighted in India in the past. In 2017, tired of women’s clothing being blamed for rape and molestation, a Mumbai-based photography and videography startup designed a hard-hitting photo series to highlight that it’s not the victim’s clothing that’s responsible.
A deep-rooted malaise, this practice of linking women’s clothing choices with psychological, physical and sexual violence against them, points at the glacial pace of progress in attitudes towards women. It is also indicative of the position and play of power associated with patriarchy that is still exercised and is a huge factor in our country.
Let’s hope and pray that incidents that the Nirbhaya case and the one involving the girl who was killed for wearing jeans become scarcer. It is also reasonable to think that only a cataclysmic event will bring about any permanent change in the status quo.
Until that happens, let’s aid the cause by not shying away from wearing what we want to wear — ‘Western’ or traditional, in ‘Bharat’ and in ‘India’. Defiantly, let us make our clothes define us and boldly face upto the consequences that might follow from our sartorial choices.