The dangers revealed by short skirts

As hemlines rise, so must our vigilance over hypocritical outrage.

WrittenBy:Sandip Roy
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The Chandigarh home secretary had an important clarification to make yesterday: “We have not banned mini skirts.”

That a home secretary is forced to issue clarifications about mini skirts is revealing in itself about the state of our moral fabric, but let’s not rush to pillory the Chandigarh administration. It’s true that its “Controlling of Places of Public Amusement 2016” policy can shut down a bar or discotheque in case of  “exhibition or advertisement of scantily dressed women” or if it’s “seditious or likely to excite political discontent”. Whether the home secretary means that policy has been misstated or that mini skirts are not “scanty” enough is unclear.

But those ridiculing the Chandigarh administration for their moral zeal are just ignorant of our own history. There is a clear historical link between sedition and undress.

None other than Sir Winston Churchill reminded us of it when he complained about the audacity of a “seditious half-naked fakir” trying to parley on equal terms with the King Emperor.

Some 70 years after Independence, in a sign of the times, the fakir has been replaced by the party girl, but that does not mean we must drop our vigilance. Sedition is always prowling, sometimes going on a Dandi March, sometimes at happy hour. As hemlines rise, so must our vigilance.

The Chandigarh moral policing is still just a policy. It has neither defined “scanty” nor “sedition”. But in these cases what Chandigarh thinks today, Kolkata already put into action yesterday.

On April 15th, a 70-year-old man, Kamal Ganguly and his son Shouvik, returning from a Trinamool Congress political rally, chanced upon a young woman who was not only wearing shorts but also smoking. The older man asked her to throw away the cigarette. The young woman answered back and she and a friend were assaulted for their impudence. Smoking, we know, is injurious to health. The young woman probably did not imagine Messrs Ganguly & Associates would drive the message home quite so literally.

“The girl was wearing a half-pant and smoking openly. How could she do that?” said the indignant and unrepentant Shouvik to The Telegraph. He added that theirs was a decent neighbourhood where young women respect their elders and do not smoke or wear short dresses. Assaulting them is okay though.

What’s even more shocking about the story is the Good Samaritan neighbour who tried to defuse the situation and help the young woman and her friend to safety is the one who is not revealing his name, as if he has done something shameful. He’s said that he has received calls from a local Trinamool leader.

It’s voting time in Kolkata and tempting to politicize everything.  A stray incident in one neighbourhood cannot be laid at Didi’s door. But chances are the Gangulys were confident their reported proximity to local political leaders would shield them from any fallout. It usually would except this is election season. After media reports about a dilly-dallying police, an FIR was hurriedly filed 48 hours after the incident including a charge under the potentially non-bailable Article 354 – “assault or use of criminal force to outrage the modesty of a woman.”

There is delicious irony in the fact that the Ganguly duo, so self-righteously outraged by the immodesty of the young woman with her cigarette and shorts, should now find themselves charged with outraging her modesty.

But it does not make the idea of “modesty of a woman” less problematic. As Kirthi Jayakumar writes on WomensWeb, these legal provisions also “reassert a ridiculous notion, that the ‘modesty’ of a woman is valued more than a woman is.” That’s why in 1967, the Supreme Court actually had to decide in the case of State of Punjab vs  Major Singh whether a girl, aged seven and a half months, “could be considered to be possessed of ‘modesty’ which could be outraged.” And that’s why while outraging the modesty of a woman is a non-bailable offence, we are unable to even recognize marital rape. When it’s between husband and wife, there is no question of modesty anymore and thus there is nothing to be outraged.

This obsession with the “modesty of a woman”, enshrined in the Penal Code itself, is the reason why self-styled moral vigilantes really do not see why they are wrong to play moral police. The Shri Ram Sene, who ran amuck in a bar in Mangalore dragging women out by their hair, saw themselves as cleansing society and enforcing wholesome moral values. Kamal Ganguly’s wife told the media her husband and son did nothing wrong. “These girls… they smoke, they are scantily dressed. Chokhey dekha jaay na,” she said. (“You can’t bear to watch them.”)

An obvious live-and-let-live solution would be to look away, as we all tried to do when we saw that thunder-thighs picture of Nitin Gadkari in flaring khaki shorts, legs crossed. Instead when it comes to women, we would rather enforce modesty than personal safety.  Bengali actor turned MLA Chiranjeet, star of films like Bastir Meye Radha (Slum girl Radha) and Mastan Raja, responded to reports of young women being molested in his constituency by saying, “(Eve teasing) is not new…for its reasons, to some extent, even women are involved. Their skirt size, their dress sense, that is definitely for entertainment.”

In 2014, the manager of the Star Theatre in Kolkata refused to let a 17-year-old girl in even though she was with her father because his security personnel decided her skirt was not long enough. The Bharatiya Janata Party Yuva Morcha led a protest at that time outside the theatre to protest the management’s “Talibanesque attitude” even as the Yuva Morcha vandalized a café in Kozhoikode because there were reports of immodest hugging and kissing in its parking lot.

It’s all done with the best of intentions. Chandigarh must think its proscriptions are for women’s own safety. Colleges from Kolkata’s Scottish Church to Delhi University have tried to crack down on short skirts to preserve the sanctity of the academic environment. The Gangulys want to preserve the “decency” of their neighbourhood. Yet we willfully ignore the reality that a perfectly sanskari salwar kameez is hardly protection from being poked, pinched or even raped if a woman happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Instead of measuring modesty by skirt-length, that should be the focus of the real outrage.


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