Yet again, the issue of how women should dress has raised its ugly head. Ugly because it has already led to the death of four women in the Kashmir Valley, two of them young students, another a teacher and the fourth a 43-year-old woman. Nureen, Shehnaz, Tahira and Jan Begum lost their lives for no reason except that they did not follow the dress dictat promulgated by a militant group insisting that all women wear veils. Three of them were shot dead and Shehnaz, a second-year student in the Girls Higher Secondary School in Palanghar, was beheaded.
These tragic and horrific events have sent a wave of fear through the valley. Girls in several places, where the messages insisting that women wearing or face death were pasted outside girls' school and colleges, have been forced to go into hiding. Attendance in schools and colleges has dropped drastically. And the trade is doing a brisk business. No one dares defy the ban. "Our lives are dearer than a dress code," a young woman was quoted saying.
But why a dress a code? And why for women alone? This is a question that refuses to go away. It is asked not just in conflict zones like the Kashmir valley but also in the relatively peaceful classrooms of all-girls colleges in Chennai. The objective political situations in the two places could not be more different. Yet, for the young women, one of the strongest concerns is that of dress - how they want to dress, and how their college authorities, or their parents, or political/militant groups, or society in general expect them to dress. At a recent workshop on women's issues in a Chennai girls college, the issue that elicited the strongest opinions and the liveliest debate was, predictably, that of dress codes. The generational divide was loud and clear. It is for your own good, argued the authorities, the parents, the teachers and the police. But we know what is good for us, argued the girls. You are too young to know what is best for you, they were told, because you do not understand the consequences of dressing in a particular way. We are sensible young women, and we know that we have to survive in the real world, countered the students. So give us freedom of choice and we will choose wisely.
Behind the concern, some of it genuine, is both fear and a desire to control. The fear arises out of the widely held belief that women must be protected, that they will unwittingly invite rape and sexual violence if they don't hide their sexuality, if they don't conform to the way society (that is men) want them to dress. This belief persists despite incontrovertible data that establishes that victims of rape and sexual violence do not follow a standard way of dressing, or are in one particular age group. The only common aspect is that they are women. In fact, a teacher at the college discussion went as far as to say that women should dress conservatively because men could not control their biological urges!
But the other side of the coin is the desire to control. Women's sexuality is always threatening and uncomfortable. Most societies fear independent, confident women. A woman who refuses to conform is viewed with awe. She scares men because her confidence in her own power as an individual and a woman reminds men of their powerlessness. So women must be controlled, so that they do not upset the status quo.
Of course, young women also face another kind of pressure - that from their peer and the fashion industry to conform to a particular dress code. If they don't, they choose to stick out as , or as girls interested in books and not in attracting men. But the difference is that here they can choose and the unwritten dress code of the "in" crowd in a college is not imposed through physical threats or violence. By dressing differently, some women assert their individuality. For instance, in many countries including India, some young Muslim women are voluntarily wearing the headscarf. In the increasingly sectarian world in which they live, they see this as a way to assert their separate and distinct identity. But it is they who have decided to do so, and they are not following a under pain of death.
When a dress code is imposed on women, it is always accompanied by threats of violence, or punishment. This is where the issue of free choice ends and regimentation begins. Indeed, even in a country like Sri Lanka, where women have a high level of literacy, where they hold many important jobs even in professions like hydro engineering, the question of dress has been a discussion point more than once. At the height of the ethnic tensions that have eased today with the advent of the peace talks, women were automatically presumed to be Tamil, Muslim or Sinhalese based on what they wore, and often targeted for harrassment because of it. Dress and ethnicity were not just conjoined but used as an instrument of coercion.
Today, although the fighting has paused while the contending parties talk, the dress issue has not entirely disappeared. New forms of chauvinism are beginning to emerge. For instance, in Colombo the issue of dress has come into focus because a school recently ruled that mothers coming to collect their sons must wear sarees. The debate over this in the newspapers focused on the saree being a sign of "pure" Sinhala culture. Underlying the insistence on the saree, say some women, is a deep chauvinism that attempts to project one community as superior and better than the others in this multi-ethnic country.
The debate over women's ways of dressing will not conclude easily. It raises its head anew with every generation. Until men accept that women are equal human beings, that they have rights, that they can reason and think, and that they are capable of being responsible, they will continue to find ways to impose irrational rules that attempt to control the way women think, act and dress.