It’s official! In a few days I will have lived in Bangalore for one year. I’ve tried hard to surround myself with Indian friends so that my experience in India is as real as possible. And I really do my best to be as respectful, sensitive and understanding as possible when it comes to the diverse cultural differences I face as an outsider living in a foreign land each day. However, I still find it impossible to say that I understand the differences between our cultures when it comes to the dress code and the double standard for men and women. Not right or wrong, I’m personally still just struggling with understanding it.
Yesterday I was driving down the road when I urgently yelled out for my driver Shiva to pull the car over and stop. Sitting high above a busy street bustling with ladies in saris and salwars and gentlemen running around in their everyday western wear was the most shocking billboard I’ve seen so far in Bangalore. The new Hanes ad campaign has just launched and one of the adverts showcases an attractive young man, lounging back seductively with one arm behind his head…with his ‘package’ in Hanes undies as the centre focus…and wearing absolutely nothing else. Wow! After seeing him, I sat and pondered why in the world I have to wrap a scarf around my shoulders when I am out in public in order not to shock people. Are my shoulders really more provocative than almost naked Mr. Hanes?
Yes they are.
If I understand it right, men from all classes are free to wear whatever they wish from any of the western fashion designers – including jeans and t-shirts and vests (that’s tank tops for Americans). Men can also run around in a lungi, which for me I see as sort of the equivalent to the female sari but in mini-skirt form. Lungis are cool actually. Simple by design yet functional and great in the heat but sometimes when the guys adjust their lungi they flash the people around them, which can be hilarious. I had seen a few men wearing a lungi when I first moved here last April but it wasn’t until I flew to Chennai in May that I caught a glimpse of thousands of lungis in just one weekend. It’s hotter there on the coast so obviously the men have adapted their attire to the climate.
Yet to my surprise the women in Chennai were all still dressed the same as women in the cooler climate of Bangalore. Why didn’t they also have a shorter version of the sari or a salwar with shorts or pirate pants? From personal experience, I know the dress code varies for women depending on social standing or between upper/middle/lower classes. Whereas my Indian girlfriends would never wear a sari or traditional Indian clothes anywhere outside of a wedding or other formal occasion, I know for a fact that my housekeeper doesn’t own anything but saris. Interestingly, I’ve interviewed a young Muslim college girl once who confessed that she wore jeans twice while away at uni in Delhi until another Muslim friend saw her out in them and told her that they were unacceptable. The girl honestly didn’t know this form of trouser was taboo and was mortified her parent’s might find out so she gave them to a Hindi friend.
Regardless of whether I like it or not, I have accepted the double standard and have adapted to it more or less while still wearing only western clothes except on special occasions. Back in the beginning of my stay in India I did slip a couple of times and I distinctly remember the first time I was hissed at for showing too much skin. I was at the Bangalore airport trying to find the outside counter to get that slip of paper needed to pass through security and go to check-in. It was about 40 degrees and I was lugging a heavy bag and starting to sweat, which is not was a lady would like to have happen just before a long flight so I removed the scarf from around my shoulders. Well, that did not go over well with one lady and she hissed at me! Her immediate hissing made me realise just how inappropriate my act was. I’ve only been hissed at twice but oddly enough both times by an older Muslim woman in a burka who I guess have zero tolerance for my shoulders or shins.
My daughter and I have had many chats about this. She’s 16 and has only ever lived in southern California or on the coast of the Med Sea in Spain, both places where coats and scarves are worn in winter but as little clothing as possible is worn in summer, especially at the beach where she spent much of her time. The change in this part of her lifestyle has been tough. In one of the hottest countries in the world, she is forced to cover up and wear more clothes than what she would in milder Spain and California — which doesn’t put a smile on her face, I guarantee you that! She’s only ever known men and women to be equal in all things, and again this change with the dress code double standards is tough to accept. She can’t wrap her head around why boys can wear whatever they want — especially in hot weather or at the pool and beach — but girls can’t. We both love the adventure of India but it is often easier for me to accept these types of cultural differences that affect us personally than it is for my daughter.
From what Shiva says, there are even more men that wear lungis in Kerala than there are in Chennai but there is also a rare group of women there down south who fish for a living and who wear a lungi with a blouse and drape a towel from the lungi up towards the shoulder to cover the gap. Go girls! That has to be WAY cooler for them and more comfortable to fish in than anything else.
When I asked around, sadly most people cited that the double standard dress code is in place for safety. Personally, I think that Indian men should be insulted by this because it’s as if to say they couldn’t control themselves if they saw Indian women in western clothes or a shorter sari. In India, modern-day fashion shouldn’t be an excuse for violence against women. The blame for violence against women should be placed exactly where it lays – 100% with the attacker and never for a single moment with the victim.
Shiva added that part of the reason for the double standard is simple peer pressure. As an example, he’s had buddies who have suggested that their wives buy a pair of cute jeans to wear with a kurta on top but the wives refuse out of fear of what the neighbours and their friends would say about them. Jeans and western clothes are synonymous with “easy women” nowadays in India and they want to steer clear of that kind of judgement.
I’m bound to shock someone from time to time with my “extreme” attire, as one conservative male colleague once said to me…but I still think that the underwear guy trumps my shoulders so I’m not too worried about it!
© Angela Carson 2012