Is there a ‘right thing to wear’ and what does it have to do with women’s safety?

Comments making a connection between the way women dress and their ‘safety’ are not uncommon. And they come from all quarters – ministers, police personnel, family, friends, relatives, passersby, ‘street Romeos’. This time it happens to be Karnataka’s Women and Child Welfare Minister CC Patil who recently said, “I don’t favour women wearing provocative clothes and always feel they need to be dignified in whatever they wear.”

What’s uncommon is a unanimous condemnation of such comments. This lack of unanimity seems to stem from murkiness around an understanding of what the implications of such remarks are. Some of my friends, who would consider themselves to be ‘progressive’, often respond to my absolute opposition to such remarks by saying that there is a right time and place for everything or asking me if I would wear party clothes to work.
A similar sentiment has been expressed by Anant Rangaswami in his opinion article on First Post on the debate stirred in India by Karnataka’s Women and Child Welfare Minister.

Anant Rangaswami is careful enough, as are my friends, to assert that it is never acceptable to assault a woman because of what she wears. However, they are all missing an important point here – comments like the one made by CC Patil are not merely remarks, they are part of a wider discourse that blame women for violence against them. Anything less than absolute condemnation of such comments is too less.

By promoting the idea that there is actually something as ‘the right thing to wear’, Anant is only adding to the ideology that informs most men who don’t hesitate even for a minute before commenting on the propriety of a woman’s dress. Drawing parallels between smoking and drinking and dressing/clothes is too simplistic. It is almost as shallow as the ‘If you leave your house unlocked, it’s going to be robbed’ argument. It does not differentiate between the assertion of control over a woman’s body and sexuality (in case of clothing) and restriction over consuming certain things (smoking/drinking).

One of the biggest points being missed by those who believe there is a ‘right thing to wear’ and those who talk about ‘dignity of women’ as very easily measurable is that there has been no research to suggest any link whatsoever between a woman’s dress and her ape/assault/molestation.

There are plenty of cases of rape of women in salwar kameez, in sarees, in burkhas, rape of girl children not even aware of their bodies, marital rape within the four walls of the house and so on. To then suggest that women should take responsibility for their own safety by dressing ‘appropriately’ is foolishness.

To go back to my friends’ question – would I wear party clothes to work – the correct answer is not a simple ‘no’. The correct answer is that this question is not relevant in this context. Sure, a mini skirt could cause outrage in Purani Dilli or Virar East but have you heard the story about two men being chased by a tiger?

One of the men sits down to put on his jogging shoes. The other man asks him if he thinks those shoes are going to help him outrun a tiger. He replies, “No, but I don’t have to outrun the tiger, I just have to outrun you.” The moral of the story is there is always going to be a saree pallu too short, a skirt hem too high, a kurta too tight and a salwar too transparent and that the only actual problem is the ‘tiger’.

So let’s hope any further conversation about women’s safety is concerning the criminals and the failure of the state and police to deter crime, not the woman’s clothes, behaviour or presence in a certain place at a certain time.