Parental Advisory For Young Girls: Button Up

Gender

Parental Advisory For Young Girls: Button Up

Illustration: Mandar Mhaskar

I

am the mother of two teenage girls growing up in Gurgaon, Haryana. This is what my average day looks like.

My 16-year-old leaves for a theatre class, followed by a trip to a local market for a snack with friends. She is wearing a T-shirt with the top two buttons undone and plenty of cleavage showing. I raise my eyebrows. “What?” she asks me, defiant.

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“That calls for attention,” I say.

She shoots back with, “You know what you are doing. You are slut-shaming me.” (I regret introducing that word into her vocabulary several times a day.)

I protest that she is going to Galleria market in an auto. I try to explain that she cannot control whom she will get attention from and that she is too young to be able to handle the consequences of unwarranted attention. Brimming with 16-year-old confidence (a confidence I had a role in building) she says, “If some strange guy comes near me, I’ll kick him in his balls.”

With that she makes a dramatic exit. As I peer out of the first-floor window, I see her buttoning up one of the two buttons.

At the end of each day, I don’t know who wins. But to me, the sight of my daughter buttoning up, feels like failure.

***

No matter which way you look at it, Gurgaon is a comfortably savage playground where sexual harassment awaits you everywhere. It is a place where the degree of a woman’s safety is directly proportional to the length of her hemline and her sleeve, and where the harassers’ class is inevitably, several notches beneath ours.

I assume you are tuned into the “clash of cultures” theory. In fact, you probably just rolled your eyes and muttered, “Not another article on Women’s Right to Dress as They Please, please!”

Well, it isn’t quite like that.

I believe, as most women do, that they have the right to dress how they please. I say to my young ’uns, “Be yourselves, don’t be afraid,” and then make them doubt themselves. I support women claiming their spaces and places, being bold and brave but I am a scared parent who cannot let two minors, whose safety I am responsible for, be the ones who will lead the revolution.

I am a feminist and I am fucked.

Is there an innate hypocrisy in what I believe and what I say? My daughters seem to think so. I don’t.

I believe we must dress to negotiate our way through life – through cities and cultures – demanding respect and giving respect. We can do this without being complicit in misogyny and without compromising our rights.

I’m telling them to be smart, negotiate, and recognise that assertion of individuality is a symbiotic thing.

How do you picture a women’s rights activist in this country? Why do people who work in the fields of sexual assault, gender equality, right to property, education, and health for women, seem to dress conservatively (for lack of a better word)? Maybe activists love Indian handlooms. Or maybe, there is more to it than that.

The clothes they choose let them blend in with surroundings they don’t belong to and get on with the battles they are fighting, including fighting for your right to wear skimpy clothes and not face any unwanted attention. They do this without having an identity crisis. These women are liberal, educated, and empowered to wear anything they want. Why then, do they prefer khadi kurtas over resort-wear for every day on the job? Ideology?

As an artist, my work takes me to male-dominated traders’ markets in the narrow alleys of old Delhi. My purpose is to procure material. Why would I want to wear a flowy evening dress there? What change am I really going to effect by wearing my preferred uniform of summer vest and shorts? So I put on a cool muslin kurta and get on without getting eyeballed by everyone around me.

My household is alive with these debates. My girls are young. I taught them about rights and gender, but I think we need dialogue on nuance.

We are not here to provoke people who we know will fail the test of liberal acceptance of dressing. We are here to challenge the systems and beliefs that make that behaviour possible. This is a belief that stems from empathy and ethics, both of which I care for deeply. I often tell my daughters that when we dress in ways that don’t match the contexts we are in, we are also casting our privilege in the face of those who don’t have it. At this point, I realise I am teetering dangerously close to the “she was asking for it” lobby: According to that horror fantasy, “provocative” clothing invites sexual harassment from poor, illiterate men.

Except, I am not. My daughters are fully aware that clothes do not matter. My fear is not merely that my daughters will face unwanted attention; it is also that we won’t be able to show adequate respect to the context we are in. My only allegiance is to a drive that the world become a fairer place.

None of this stems from modesty and morality – I don’t care for either. Which is why, I get so riled when those around us try to dictate the way women ought to dress. On a recent morning, I was woken up by a phone call from the disciplinary head at my daughter’s school. “T is wearing a bright pink bra today,” she upbraided me. “Did you not see her this morning? It’s showing through the school shirt. You know only beige and white are allowed.” Err, yes, I offered, but they were probably in the wash. I was told that T was being given a warning and that the next time, she would be sent back home. “Yes, ma’am,” I answered.

It was only after I put down the phone that the morning fog cleared from my brain and the “I should haves” began. I should have said, “How dare you? Girls wear bras. Deal with it. Why do you get to describe your school as “progressive” if you feel threatened by a pink bra?” Eventually, I did write a letter to the principal expressing my thoughts and told my daughter to wear the pink bra again and that I’d deal with it. Nothing happened.

So am I sending my daughters mixed signals here? I don’t think so. I’m raising them as aware, intelligent girls. I’m telling them to be smart, negotiate, and recognise that assertion of individuality is a symbiotic thing. It is not an individual pursuit. Environments matter, context matters. Use your judgement, argue your stand. “Just because” is the enemy of justice.

It has been a long battle for women to get to where we are today – let’s not trivialise it without reason. Let’s pick our battles carefully. Fight the core of patriarchy and misogyny, not the upper crust that is concerned with decisions that diminish in the larger scheme of things. And when the fight is all done and the world is a fair and equitable place, we can all dress as we want.

Until then, button up, pretty please!

This piece was published earlier on August 30, 2016.

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