Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Common Flower Girl and the Lady

For me, the internal debate all started when a friend of mine from the US who was in India for a bit, brought it up: she couldn’t go about anywhere in shorts or a knee-length skirt, or shirts without sleeves without being ogled at and sometimes, groped. She reflected a simmering undercurrent that we've all known and grown up with in India. She brought up a truth that has been the basis of every mother’s worry when her daughter hobbles up a bus or hails an auto on a desolate roadway. That got me thinking: is what a woman wears really something so difficult for men to deal with? Is it a woman’s duty to “not get” violated or raped or harassed or ogled at? Is it for a woman to do everything she can so that a man can “keep his urges in check”?

If these questions were answered in the affirmative, it would be like saying that every criminal urge in a criminal is a reflection of the failure of a security sector system – when it reality it is more often a proclivity inherent in an individual than an external element. After an interesting debate this morning with a group of erudite people in a blogging community, I realised that there are still people who believe that it is a woman’s way of dressing that causes sexual violence.

Beg to differ. To say that a woman should be careful to not get raped is to feed into the sexist undercurrent that thrives in society today: that a man can do anything and his “urges” are okay to run amok, and if the girl got unwanted attention from a man, it is her fault and not his. Some might argue that the media has been the single greatest influence in letting this happen – but has anyone considered that the media is only perhaps reflecting what we truly are? Mohombi’s sexist lyrics or even Ford’s retracted advertisement are actually portrayals of what we let society continue to exist as. Let’s not forget that we come from a history where women have been chattels – whether as comfort women in the times of the World War, as courtesans and dancers in eras before that, as tools that settle disputes for warring families, or even as property ready to be sold at a “marriageable age”. The media – movies, books, literature and even sitcoms – represent women as society sees them. For society, the good natured simple woman who keeps house is the ideal. For society, the woman who wears anything she wants and knows what she wants is the anomaly. And the media picks up on that: so is it fair to say that the media influences us to look at women as chattels?

Coming to the question of dressing, I don’t agree at all that a woman’s dressing implies that she is asking for harassment. For starters, NO ONE WANTS HARASSMENT. NOTHING JUSTIFIES RAPE OR HARASSMNT OF ANY KIND! Clothes are a person’s expression of their personality and style, and wearing what a woman likes best is not wrong at all. Secondly, for all the hue and cry people raise about a woman’s dressing, in truth - there’s really no connect in many cases – women who are well covered are also the butt of much harassment and sometimes even rape. For the past couple of weeks, I've been trying this experiment. I've been using full sleeved shirts or tunics, about a size or two larger than my own. I walked down streets, visited hotels, cafes, malls and stores, I used public transportation, I stood in queues and I did pretty much everything one needs to, to access basic needs in a working day. It didn't matter: what I wore didn't matter one bit. I was still ogled at with that disgusting look that has been named “undressing with the eyes”. Men – and twice, even boys younger than I was - whizzed past, singing, whistling or catcalling in high pitched and shrill tones with their eyes shamelessly on me, a hand lingered longer than necessary while returning change, one person brushed against me when there was enough space for a car to pass. I compared notes with other friends, and what we described to each other is our everyday reality.  On the contrary, you find men of all shapes, sizes and ages wearing the most microscopic shorts imaginable, with tank tops (some, to my ghastly discovery even with which rolls of fat jostling for space) - you don't see women with their eyes riveted on them or catcalling or whistling after them. 

Let’s not zone out the bigger picture here (the parochial mindset that prevails vis-a-vis women) and focus on what we mistakenly believe to be the reasons (the media and a woman’s sartorial choices!). We’re in a day and age where education has reached so many corners in so many different forms: we’ve got to rise above these absolutely ridiculous considerations of inferiority or superiority of the sexes. We’re all human, and there’s something “we can that they can’t do, and we can’t that they can do”. Respecting the differences and celebrating them isn’t hard at all.

As Audrey Hepburn’s lines as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady goes: “You see, Mrs. Higgins, apart from the things one can pick up, the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated. I shall always be a common flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me like a common flower girl, and always will. But I know that I shall always be a lady to Colonel Pickering, because he always treats me like a lady, and always will.” 

It's up to you to see her the right way.