Jousting over jeans in India

Jeans become battleground for women empowerment in India


August 10, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Jousting over jeans in India

Despite the sweeping development India has seen in past few decades, a women dressed in jeans is still seen as a social misfit by many Indians. (Photo: Haley Phelps/Unsplash)

According to a recent Lok Survey on gender prejudice, which polled 65,000 urban and rural households throughout India, nearly 77 pc of respondents thought pants and shirts were "wrong" clothing for young women. A majority of people in rural and urban India believed so. As more women take to wearing trousers or specifically jeans, they are facing mounting pressure, or even violent attacks, from families as well as entire communities to dress in ‘modest’ clothes.

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“Though born and brought up in a relatively modern and well-educated family, since birth I had been told to wear traditional Indian clothes, as her father did not like me to wear trousers or jeans. As a teenager, I tried to rebel as traditional dresses were not comfortable for all activities and I often felt out of the group of my friends. But my father was adamant and I had to bow to his wishes,” recounts a 20-year-old student from Assam, who currently is studying in New Delhi.

“It was then that I decided to study hard and get admission to a good college in the national capital, far away from home, where I thought I could dress as I wanted. However, the acceptance of a woman wearing jeans is no better here in the capital than in my village and I never felt comfortable moving out in trousers or jeans,” the student tells Media India Group on condition of anonymity, adding that she has since given up on wearing ‘western’ attire and now regularly dresses in traditional Indian clothes.

Hers is hardly an isolated case where a woman is forced to dress as per societal or familial norms. A recent survey on the issue, which polled 65,000 urban and rural households throughout India, nearly 77 pc of respondents thought pants and shirts were “wrong” clothing for young women.

Despite the sweeping development India has seen in past few decades, a women dressed in jeans is still seen as a social misfit by many Indians. And unfortunately for women, the criticism is seldom only oral or psychological. There have been many incidents of women being attacked in different parts of India for the way they were dressed. And often, the violence takes place at the woman’s home itself where some male family member decides to ‘set things right’. Just recently, 17-year-old Neha Paswan was allegedly beaten to death by members of her extended family in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh because they didn’t like her wearing jeans.

“I strictly condemn the incident happened in UP, wearing jeans is not a crime it’s a kind of clothing only, I don’t know why our Indian society and especially some orthodox people make a big issue out of it? Unfortunately, it’s a mentality in society that girls who wear jeans are characterless but it’s not the girl who is having anything bad in her it’s the society and its patriarchist norm which is wrong,” Sarika Chaudhary, member of Delhi Women Commission tells Media India Group.

“When such parents have criminal thinking, what will their children learn from them? They will become criminals like them in future and such incidents will increase in future.” she adds.

Paswan’s death was not an exception as in many conservative families in India, even today jeans are widely associated with promiscuity and they are criticised for being extremely exposing, bold and figure hugging and displaying a lack of ‘respect for society’s rules’.

In another incident in Uttar Pradesh, fortunately without physical violence, a farmer leader told a village council or panchayat in Muzaffarnagar that males should not wear shorts and girls should not wear jeans in villages. “If they do not follow this order, they may face societal consequences,” he said.

Education no bar

Uttar Pradesh, where Paswan lived and was killed, is one of the poorest and least developed states in the country with low literacy rates. Unfortunately, it is not just in the underdeveloped and illiterate parts of population that women face criticism over their dresses.

Kerala has long boasted of highest literacy rates in the country, with close to 100 pc. However, here too, the conservative mindset prevails in a significant section of the population. Recently, a priest made headlines when he told a sizeable gathering that “women who arouse men by exposing themselves and wearing men’s attire should be drowned in the sea with rocks tied to their bodies”.

“When I go for prayer meetings in some churches, especially during the Holy Mass, I feel like leaving because of some women who I see in front of me. I feel it’s better to kick them out of the church premises,” he added, pointing to some women wearing jeans.

“This attitude is underlined by deeper gender biases,” says DWC’s Chaudhary. “They should change their mentality towards women, when they give boys all the freedom whether it’s about their life, clothes, studies or anything, then why do they restrict their girls from being independent and do whatever they want to, this shows their regressive and pathetic mentality,” she asks.

Women wearing jeans has indeed become a national issue with incidents reported from across India, especially in colleges where some teachers or managements set out a dress code for girls. Be it Haryana’s Adarsh Women’s College, Tamil Nadu’s RMD Engineering College, Bengaluru’s Christ College or Kanpur’s Dayanand Girls’ PG College and Amritsar’s Government Medical College, they have all banned jeans while others have banned ‘tight jeans’ or low waist jeans.

However, the malaise is not limited to these cities. As a 20-year-old student in Amity University, one of the most expensive and high profile institutes experienced for herself. “From the beginning of the course, we were told to dress professionally. We were not permitted to wear clothing that was too tight or exposed too much skin. We were also asked not to wear ripped jeans to an event, but when we asked, they ignored us, saying it’s a professional course and you’re not allowed to dress like that. Our teachers also teased us about dressing professionally and decently on special occasions. Teachers locked their gazes on us when we did not follow the rules. Even though we were wearing saris as per their instruction, we were asked to show as little skin as possible. It was specifically requested that the blouse not be backless or too short,” she tells Media India Group.

The jeans phobia of Indian society is not restricted to educational institutions only, even non-educational institutions have it too. For instance, in several government offices in Maharashtra, Bihar or Madhya Pradesh, there are strict guidelines to workers for not wearing jeans inside the office premises.

There is no shortage of ministers and public leaders who have made derogatory comments about women wearing jeans. For instance, Babulal Gaur, a minister in Madhya Pradesh government of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) conflated jeans-wearing women with those who ‘drink liquor and dance with men’ and go against ‘Indian culture’. The same party’s leader in Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, this time the chief minister himself, told a press conference that women who wear ripped jeans pave the way for a societal breakdown.

Some women leaders say it’s time ordinary citizens woke up to the probmem that women face and react strongly to it. “We cannot leave everything to government, it’s the responsibility of each citizen to teach our children to respect the opposite gender, respect their choices, their clothing, be independent and be aware of each other’s rights in society so that they can become better human beings and such barbaric incidents can be prevented in the future,” says Chaudhary.



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