Social norms and dress code – 1
In continuation to my previous pieces on gender, I would like to talk about dress code in this issue. Many years ago, soon after I had arrived in the United States for my doctoral degree, I was showing some pictures to an American friend of mine one day at my student apartment in Austin. As she turned the leaves of the photo album, my friend said to me: “How come men in Kashmir wear western clothing while women are only in traditional dresses?” I looked at her and pondered for a moment. How come this stark reality never struck me before? It was the first time in my life that I seriously thought about this striking difference in the dressing norms of men and women in Kashmir. Not that I never wished to wear western clothing myself before I left – in fact while growing up, many Kashmiri women I knew, as part of natural curiosity, had expressed a secret desire to try pants, skirts, saris and other non-local outfits – but I hadn’t even imagined there could be other possibilities for me in life.
Whether at workplace, parties, weddings, and other social gatherings, or in the privacy of their homes – women in Kashmir, just like the women of rural India, are expected to be more traditional. We are supposed to be the torchbearers of our culture and social norms while men continue to break those norms without much scrutiny or hullabaloo. While our men – young and old – have largely switched to wearing more comfortable modern outfits except in case of religious gatherings, cultural events, etc., women are under constant pressure to uphold the practice of traditional clothing. If you don’t trust me, go to a Kashmiri wedding, visit a school or a university campus, go to the marketplace or a picnic area, or even a cultural event – you will see menfolk mostly in modern outfits – Jeans, T-shirts, shorts, pants, leather belts, shirts, suits and neck ties. Now, imagine a situation where men start wearing traditional clothing in a formal office setting at workplace – pheran-yezaar and topi, kurta-pajamah and a dastaar — they are sure to receive many surprised looks, be looked down upon, considered “untidy” or even “backward”. However, as soon as women start catching up to the way men dress like, all eyes are out of their sockets to measure their modesty. Any aberration on their part in the way they carry themselves in public, and everyone is out to give a lecture on religion, traditional values, culture, and morality. Though more and more young girls are seen wearing jeans and riding their newly acquired scooters in some parts of the city nowadays, they are often subject to ridicule and moral policing.
But what is it about western clothing that makes it so attractive for both men and women, and why should we make a big deal about clothing in the first place? I have lived in different cultures and tried all sorts of clothing, depending on the occasion and mood. It seems to me that traditional clothing, unless fairly modified, is not suitable for everyday use. You can’t wear a shalwar-kameez to the gym, for instance (Yes! that is a possibility! Even women like to be physically fit). It’s good for parties, cultural events and “take-it-easy-resting times” when you are not on your toes trying to get things done. You may even love to wear it every now and then if you feel like, but beyond that those traditional dresses don’t really give the confidence that you may get in some of the more comfortable modern outfits where you don’t have to worry about tripping every second and holding on to your dupatta or headscarf with one hand and your baggy pants with the other when you are trying to do some chores, talking at a public event, or simply walking. No, I am not lying. Haven’t you seen our chief minister, Ms. Mehbooba Mufti on television recently? Have you ever noticed how often she talks hands free? Poor Mehbooba had recently attended a wedding without a headscarf, and a storm of trolls attacked her with a volley of judgments after looking at the picture somebody shared on Facebook.
People back home are so obsessed about women’s outfit that it gives me nightmares for weeks if not months before I plan a trip to India. Every year, packing my luggage is an ordeal as I find myself running out of space to fit in clothes that would be appropriate for each place and occasion. With little time for shopping, I find myself digging for discarded and unused clothing that has been sitting in my wardrobe for years. Piling up many sets of kameez-shalwar-duppattas that have to be matching and color-coded (Yes, that’s another headache!), I find it a frustrating wastage of time when I should be doing something more creative and intellectually satisfying. And as soon as I arrive at the Srinagar airport, I become conscious of my body feeling as if everyone is looking at me; and often they are. And it’s not just me. It’s the story of almost every other Kashmiri woman I know. Yi kyah chhuth loagmut (‘What are you wearing?’) is a refrain for any encounter with your acquaintances should you not fit the norm.
But that’s only part of the story. It’s not just the traditional dress code that we are expected to follow. For Muslim women, it’s also the baggage of religious norms associated with that, which is selectively thrust upon us by our society. Every time I am in Kashmir, I find myself irritated with people wanting to provide unsolicited advice on Islam and morality, invoking the practice of hijab. You are walking on the street and someone may yell at you: kalas pyetth thawizihe dduptta (‘Why haven’t you covered your head’). Menfolk, drooling at women in sexy outfits on television, social media and elsewhere, engaging in sex talk with unknown women on Facebook, will give lectures on Islam and haya. “Women look more beautiful in hijab,” they will tell you. “It’s mandatory in Islam for women to wear hijab”, they will say without even knowing the socio-historical background of the practice. People who have a very superficial understanding of Islam, Qur’an and hadith will provide sermons on how “it is a sin not to cover your head.” Men shielding their own women from the “sinful eyes” of other men, won’t leave an opportunity to flirt with other women they find more modern and outgoing. You are constantly seen as a sexual object rather than as an individual.
About three years ago, I had a bitter experience at the Kashmir University during a two-day seminar on language and culture, which I had organized with a colleague from the university. While walking towards the Iqbal Memorial Library for the “welcome” address, my co-organizer stopped to give me a friendly advice. He turned to me politely: “If you don’t mind, I request you to cover your head. You don’t know this place; people will say things.” Very politely, I refused to oblige and we carried on. On the following day, however, during the morning session, soon after I invited our plenary speaker to the stage, I was subject to the worst form of public humiliation. Standing on the podium in a crisply ironed safari suit with his freshly dyed hair, the retired professor, a renowned poet and writer, looked at me with great contempt and started a lecture on morality: “In our society, good women value traditions. They don’t go about showing their hair in public. Girls of shareef families respect these norms and that’s how they get suitable grooms.” Sitting right across the stage from him, it was more than clear that I was the target of his abuse. I wanted to stand up and tell him that I was a mother of two kids and happily married to a “good guy” but I did not. In seething rage, I held on to my shaking limbs, clenched my fists against my knees and carried on with the conference. The memory of that humiliation continues to bother me. Sometime later, a similar request was made by a local television host seconds before a live program where I was invited for an interview. When I objected, he said to me helplessly: “It’s the month of Ramzan; people will start making phone calls in a moment. It’s a difficult place.” With little time to argue, reluctantly, I gave in. But I never understood what it was about Ramzan that people suddenly become hyper-religious for a month.
I have visited different educational institutions in Kashmir in the past many years where I noticed a drastic change in the dress code of girls. In certain places I was taken by shock finding almost every single girl in a black abaya and a headscarf. In some cases, they even cover their entire face except for a tiny little space for their eyes. On the other hand, you will see young men in tight-fitting T-shirts, comfy trousers and jeans, showing off their abs, stylish hairdos and modern gadgets, standing nearby. I don’t have an objection to anyone wearing a particular dress as such, but when it becomes a social norm and people are under immense pressure to follow suit, it is problematic. It can be suffocating and that’s exactly how most women feel quite very often in public spaces in Kashmir. Many women simply give in to avoid confrontation but live double lives nevertheless.
But how did we arrive at this stage? Many people will argue that it’s only because Kashmiri society is more traditional, or because hijab is in vogue in many Muslim countries around the world. But that’s only part of the story, and it’s misleading.
(To be continued)
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(This article was first published in the daily Rising Kashmir)