India

Tips for Indian politicians who tell women what to wear

Foreign tourists in India Image copyright AFP
Image caption Millions of foreign tourists visit India every year

An Indian politician has caused outrage once again for saying that foreign tourists should avoid wearing skirts. The BBC's Geeta Pandey in Delhi has collected some tips for politicians with a tendency to dispense unsolicited fashion advice to women.


So what advice do politicians give to women?

There was uproar at the weekend when Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma said that a list given to tourists at airports advised them not to wear skirts or dresses in India or venture out alone at night in small towns

Sadly, he is not the first - and he certainly won't be the last - to deliver such advice to women on how to keep themselves safe and avoid rape.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Indian politicians often tell women to cover up

Time and again, ministers, politicians and other influential community leaders have been telling women and girls not to wear jeans, short skirts, dresses or shorts. Women have also been told not to go out after dark, date, be friends with boys, or even use mobile phones.

Here's a list of recent offenders:

  • Samajwadi Party leader Abu Azmi said scantily-clad women attracted male attention and that rape cases were on the rise due to "women wearing less clothes".
  • Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the right-wing Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which is the ideological mentor of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, said rapes were an urban crime shaped by westernisation, and were not happening in rural India where traditional values were upheld.
  • A female politician, Asha Mirje, caused outrage for saying that "rapes take place also because of a woman's clothes, her behaviour and her being at inappropriate places".

Why does political language matter?

Image copyright AP
Image caption India has seen several protests over rape cases and the treatment of women

Since the brutal gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old student on a bus in December 2012 in Delhi, there is much more scrutiny within India - and globally - of what influential people and opinion makers say about violence against women.

The justification offered by many in India's largely paternalistic society is that these remarks are well meaning and actually meant to protect women.

But women activists and commentators disagree - they say that there's no correlation between short skirts and rape.

"It's very very important that these politicians stop telling women what sort of clothes to wear or what not to wear," Swati Maliwal, chief of Delhi Commission for Women, told the BBC.

"It's time they stop trivialising issues like rape and sexual harassment and do something constructive to address these serious problems."


Some tips for politicians...

For the politicians who seem to be afflicted with foot-in-mouth disease, former public relations professional Chaya Srivatsa, who is also a life coach with an info-tech firm, has some good advice.

She points out that Mr Sharma also suggested that if female tourists were taking a cab at night, they take a photo of the number plate and send it to a friend or family member so that the driver would know not to misbehave.

Image copyright AFP

"That was a good thought, but that went completely unnoticed. Our politicians are not good at communication. They should learn to say it in the proper manner.

"He should have just said: Sorry we have jerks here, be careful."

I also asked comedienne Neeti Palta to come up with suggestions on what our politicians should not say to stay out of controversy. Here's her wish list:

  • Please remember it's not the clothes that maketh the woman. The only clothes that are rape-proof are clothes without women in them.
  • Get three women to approve of what you say before you make it public.
  • Put yourself in a time machine and emerge in 2016.
  • Lock people like yourselves after dark so we are safer from foot-in-mouth disease

Where did modest clothes come from anyway?

Politicians have been told to emerge in 2016. Or, perhaps they could go back to the past.

For, according to historians, modesty crept into Indian women's wardrobes during the Victorian era.

Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption The blouse and petticoat were introduced to India by the British

And what would surprise many is that the blouse and the petticoat - worn with the sari that's often described as India's national dress - only became popular with Indian women during the British rule. This means the notions of traditional modesty may not really have their roots in Indian tradition.

Whatever the argument over where prudishness came from, Indian politicians would do well to heed this sage advice - that instead of advising women what to wear, they should advise men on how to behave.


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