Why must men weigh in on women's sartorial preferences, asks Sumit Paul

Having to resist the pathological male gaze day in and day out and tolerate the mindless sexist comments on how a woman should dress in public is no less than an ordeal for not just a common woman, but for all women regardless of their age and social status.

-Quratulain Haider, famous Urdu novelist

The newly appointed asinine CM of an Indian state literally, as well as metaphorically, finds holes in women’s phati (ripped) jeans. This self-styled moral custodian of sanatan bharatiya sanskriti thinks that women wearing such apparels may expedite the arrival of Doomsday. But he’s not alone. There're scores of men in the society who'd like to issue edicts on the sartorial exactitude of women.

The father of Semiotics (the science of signs and symbols), Umberto Eco, wrote in his magnum opus ‘On Beauty’: “Men in all societies and in all eras have given themselves an uncalled-for right to decide as to what should a woman wear because men are intrinsically fearful of sartorially uninhibited women.” So very true. Men are indeed apprehensive of sartorially uninhibited women. They (men) tend to see them as threats to their manhood.

Chanakya weighed in

That’s the reason Chanakya, a misogynist and a prototype of the world’s male chauvinists, wrote rather condescendingly, ‘Yath purushasya aagyam paridhanam na shobhante striyanam (Until a man approves wholeheartedly, a woman's clothes don't look good on her!)’. In other words, men are sartorial deciders (for women) in familial, as well as societal set-ups. This is inveterate in all men.

Moreover, thinking themselves as the sole moral custodians and being redundantly chivalrous at times, males have an innate notion of being the saviours of women. That’s the reason, in all patriarchal and primitive faiths, men decided and conceptualised hijab (veil), ghoonghat, apronso (whole body covering dress for women in Judaism) etc. In other words, for centuries, men have been regulating women’s sense of dressing and her modesty.

So much so that not long ago, the Victorian morality in England made it compulsory for all women to hide even their ankles. The mere glimpse of a woman’s ankles could invite the wrath of the society! Readers may be aware that even the great and highly advanced ancient Greek and Roman civilisations, men decided women’s sartorial destiny and covered them from tip to toe, though the male philosophers, known as gymnosophists (Gym: Naked/Sophist: Philosopher) would roam naked like Naga babas and Digambaris, spreading great wisdom!

Male nude sculptures

You hardly get to see female nude sculptures belonging to Hellenic civilisations but Apollo, Zeus, Adonis and Cupid were all naked. So was the great thinker Diogenes. Plato eulogised male nudity, but suggested full body cover for women!

The sartorial patronisation practised by men has deeper anthropological ramifications as well. Many men still suffer from discipline syndrome. It’s because of that one keeps coming across a number of instances of men publicly rebuking women for dressing in an ‘improper’ manner. Auguste Comte, French philosopher and the earliest sociologist, believed that prehistoric, troglodyte men provided skin and tree covers (Valkal in Sanskrit) to women, to cover their modesty. But for many centuries, their own modesty remained uncovered. That earliest anthropological inclination percolated down to collective male DNA and became almost every man’s chromosomic character.

Though chromosomic character or the morbid male chauvinism could be cited as universal attributes of all men, it’d be advisable to cull out Indian men as particularly rabid species in terms of gender discrimination. Go to Haryana, UP, Bihar or Rajasthan and one can hear men openly say that they don’t even like the sight of a woman in jeans and T-shirt, let alone shorts or ripped jeans. Yours truly got a recent WhatsApp message from a retired professor of Political Science at BHU. He too subscribed to such antediluvian gender concepts: ‘Aise vastra nari ki maryada ke viruddh hain’ (such outrageous attire is against the spirit of womanhood).

Repugnant male gaze

If ‘educated’ people entertain such regressive ideas about women’s clothes, how can you expect Indian society to be forward on gender-oriented issues? In a country where a man sewed up his wife’s genitals with aluminium thread, assuming that she was having sex with someone else, a general tenor terribly tilted against women is not something very surprising. We’re socially indoctrinated to look down on women who dress up boldly. One writer from the Hindi belt wrote very recently that women wearing sleeveless blouses or kurtas may stoke men’s dormant desires! Alas, here everything boils down to stark carnality and naked lasciviousness. To cut the matter short, no part of a woman's body escapes from the dirty and creepy gaze of men.

Universally speaking, it’s therefore natural for some men in this age and time for not being able to abrogate their anthropological roots and duties to discipline women when they begin to show skin. But mind you, I’m not justifying this chromosomic proclivity of lecherous and forever priapic men. Neither am I exonerating these reprehensible characters. My point is: Who has given these sexist men the right to comment upon the sartorial predilections of women? Are these sick men the arbiters of human morality, particularly, feminine morality? Years ago, a female editor of Debonair (yes, there was one female editor who edited this now defunct famous and fabulous male magazine) aptly said, ‘Men talk about women's morality, but secretly salivate over their nudity.’

The writer is an advanced research scholar of Semitic languages, civilisations and cultures.

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