What does India and Swaziland, Africa’s last absolute monarchy, have in common? Very little, on the face of it. But the latest diktat by the police in Swaziland has a familiar ring. Women in Swaziland are now banned from wearing miniskirts and ‘crop tops’ because Swazi authorities think such apparel ‘encourages rape’. Offenders face a six-month spell in jail. The Swazi police have resurrected an archaic, colonial criminal Act from 1889 to stop women from wearing clothes that expose parts of their body. For those who came in late, the US Department of State has designated Swaziland as a ‘Critical Crime Threat’ country.
Swaziland is thousands of miles away from Rajasthan. But Banwari Lal Singhal, BJP MLA from Alwar, take a bow. It is not known whether the Swazi police know of Mr Singhal’s existence or are aware of his views about skirts as a crime-enabler, but clearly, great minds think alike. Those of us who read newspapers or watch television remember all too well his recent demand for a ban on skirts as uniform in schools. The ostensible reason: to keep girls away from “men’s lustful gazes”. In a letter to state chief secretary C.K. Mathew, Mr Singhal suggested that skirts be replaced by trousers or salwar-kameez. That has placed him fairly and squarely in the company of many other worthies. In the days following the gang rape and torture of the 23-year-old physiotherapy student in a moving bus in Delhi and her eventual death, politicians and public figures of all hues and stripes have rushed to outdo each other in making Thou-shalt-not style statements.
As I write, there is no let-up in rapes and sexual assaults. Angst, anger and outrage continue. Meanwhile, girls and women are being urged by self-styled moral guardians to shun short skirts, co-education, mobile phones and so on, even as the nation is busy positioning itself as an emerging, modern technological power. There are other commandments too: recite the Saraswati mantra, not board a bus with a male friend in the evening, address a potential rapist as ‘brother’ and so on. Puducherry education minister T. Thiagarajan wants girl students in his city to wear overcoats, never mind the weather, so that men won’t be driven mad with lust.
The good news is that the new year has started on a positive note. Despite the flood of depressing news, young, urban, middle class India, many of whom may be reading this column, is waking up and challenging the mindsets that want to keep half the country’s population shackled. They are shedding their lethargy and coming out into the streets to pave the way for the change they want to see in this country. Humour is the latest tool being deployed by those who are challenging conventional notions of masculinity which sustain patriarchy. Last week, 25 young men, mostly in their mid-twenties, gathered in Bengaluru’s famed Cubbon Park, wearing skirts, to challenge the notion that everyone in ‘skirts’ was provocative and was sending out a come-hither signal to a potential rapist. Many who watched the youngsters or read about them probably had a hearty laugh. Many others have been dismissive. After all, what can 25 male urbanites do to change deeply entrenched attitudes which seek to give the benefit of the doubt to a rapist and rap the victim? But there is a deeper point. As Danish Sheikh, a resident of Bengaluru, commented on the public Facebook page of ‘Skirt the Issue’, “the idea of men wearing skirts strikes at the root of assumptions about masculinity. In the end, it is engendered attitudes of patriarchy we’re targeting, and a very important part of the conversation is working around this bewildering need to prove machismo.”
Is machismo an integral part of Indian tradition? And are these young male ‘cross-dressers’ challenging tradition in doing what they did? The answer is yes and no. India’s greatest attribute is the pluralistic nature of its tradition. Hindus, the majority community, have multiple myths and have multi-faceted icons. Those who talk about “Sita’s fate” for girls crossing the “Lakshman Rekha” should also mull over the concept of Ardhanarishwara, which represents the synthesis of masculine and feminine energies of the universe and which illustrates how Shakti, the female principle of God, is inseparable from Shiva, the male principle of God. India’s myths and traditions offer us many pathways -- it is up to us to decide whether we stay with the patriarchal strand or embrace the more inclusive ones.
Patralekha Chatterjee is a Delhi-based writer