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Sunday, October 30, 2011

/ Published by Simon L Infimate
Zacharia Varte~Zacharia Varte, New Delhi

I’m neither a philosopher nor a thinker. I guess I’m just too lazy to be one or may be just not scholarly enough to dwell on a particular subject and draw conclusions about it. But of late a train of thoughts has crossed my mind which I am compelled to write as I can no longer keep it to myself.

My first ‘thought’ or ‘theory’ as a pseudo-thinker was this: Boredom is NOT what you feel when you have nothing to do.  One can have a thousand things to do and yet feel very very bored. I was bored to death while I was thinking about this. I had many things to do and I did do them as slow as I could have, even as the voices in my head kept telling me: get a life!

As I mentioned before one thought led to another, so as I was thinking about boredom, its meaning, causes and cure when another thought struck  my mind: Being bored can make you go bonkers. So in the middle of the night I logged out of my facebook and decided to watch Alice in Wonderland. Say what you want but this movie somehow wraps my heart and veils my consciousness until I myself wonder in Underland every time I watch it.

I finished watching the movie and decided to emulate the Mad Hatter with a hope that it would somehow sweep away this dullness. Like the Mad Hatter I started to think of random words that start with different letters.  I began with the letter ‘V’ and all that came to my mind was ‘Varte’ and ‘Valerie’ (LMAO). Then I jumped to ‘B’; bawngsa, bawngchek, Basic Instinct, buffalo and then Burqa. Somehow the word burqa hooked me. ‘But why would it?’ I asked myself.

Burqa and the controversies surrounding it had never affected me directly. I am not a Muslim and even if I did belong to that group of orthodox Muslims being a boy I wouldn’t need to wear it. Then all at once my mind travelled back to the time when the Department of Music and Youth Affairs (HCF Delhi) was organizing the 4th Youth Conference. As our group were discussing ‘what to wear’ during the choir completion I suggested or rather vehemently argued that all the ladies should be dressed in the traditional puonlaisen.

The greatest opposition came from people whom I thought would have supported me. The most prominent argument was that it would be literally impossible to wear puonlaisen in such a hot and humid climate and that since men do not have to wear, they consequently do not understand the atrocities of wearing such a heavy and ornamental puon. The only counter argument I could give was that the boys would also have to wear a tie. Needless to say all the ladies wore the traditional puon and the men, their tie. The suggestion for men to wear a formal coat was immediately shunned, primarily because of the weather and also because not everyone owns a coat. It may be noted here that some of the girls also had to borrow puonlaisen.

Few questions arise: Does such a diktat for women amount to subordination? Did the issue of women having to wear puon stem out of the traditional belief that women are subservient to men? Can it even be called objectification of women? So does the issue of puon somehow run parallel to that of burqa?

In our final year of BA (Political Science) we were given a choice between two subjects for the last paper; United Nations Organization (UNO) and Women and Political Process (Feminism). Since I could not bear the thought of learning the various resolutions of UNO verbatim and also because I consider myself to be quite a feminist (having been brought up by two incredible women), I chose Women and Political Process. As I had hoped, the class was fun with lots of discussion on various issues pertaining to women. It goes without saying that our teacher, Ms. Namita Pandey is a feminist inside out.

In one of our classes, as we were discussing topics relating to traditional subordination of women, I raised the issue of how society over the years have always issued a diktat on the way women should dress and that women alone are somehow given the responsibility of upholding traditional attires. I argued that while nobody has a problem with the Prime Minister wearing fine western suits, imagine the hullabaloo the media would create had Sonia Gandhi or Sushma Swaraj wore a western outfit to a public function. I pressed that this itself shows the subordination of women right from the top.

Every student in the class including myself thought that our teacher would shed tears of joy if not give me an extra mark in internal assessment. Fortunately, we were all wrong. What she said changed my whole feminist-perspective on women and the way they dress. She said that it is about ‘responsibility’. According to her; since ancient times, almost in every culture women are seen as an ambassador of culture especially when it comes to attire. This is an area where women have always held a higher task and power than men.

I couldn’t agree more with my teacher. The way a woman dress in the privacy of her home is her prerogative, but when it comes to public she holds a certain privilege and liability. Women clothes and female models dominating the various fashion events around the world is in itself a good example of women dominance in this sphere. Come to think of it, women in top brass politics should themselves take up the mission of honoring the traditional attire of the nation and culture they represent.

Looking at it in the context of our society, we the males, no matter how much we may feel the need to uphold and uplift our traditional attires can do very little in the practical ground. Women are needed here to practice what we all ideally want. Therefore, when women are asked to wear a certain traditional puon for a particular gathering, it is not subordination but rather a progressive outlook that women are far more capable of doing this task. If we refuse to see it this way, it would either result in society without its own cultural attire or a society full of cross dressers. (No offence intended).

Thus, I think it can be safely said that the burqa and puon cannot be compared. First, when we say burqa we aren’t talking about a head scarf, hijab or a shawl. A burga is a full on purdah enveloping a woman to make sure that no part of her body be seen in public. I agree with the view that a burqa is a symbol of repression of women. It clearly states that women should barely have a public life, leave alone the physical discomfort of the woman wearing it. Puon on the other hand is a symbol of women’s ability to showcase her traditional dresses in the most fashionable way. I believe it to be a symbol of emancipation, power and dignity.

This however does not mean the patriarchs have every right to direct how a woman should dress in every occasion. That definitely would be subordination. The women themselves need to acknowledge that this is their distinctive area of authority and hence also hold responsibility. In this age of neo-liberalism, a diktat would only lead to a rebellion.

The next big question arise: Are men free to dress however they want? I would like to say yes, but the truth is with freedom comes responsibility. Although it is entirely the individual’s privilege to be constricted in Korean influenced skintight jeans, there is a time and place for everything.  Not that I’m calling these fashions indecent, but come on, skintight jeans and skull T- shirt in a church? What are people trying to prove? Call me old fashioned but if you consider yourself to be a fashionista, dress according to the occasion. Moreover, how one dresses to church or for that matter to a social function is not just between the individual and the creator. It is also between you and the other people attending that gathering. In places like Delhi the equation includes all those people who see you going in and out of the gathering. If we consider ourselves to be progressive enough to value liberalism, I think we should also be advanced enough to acknowledge the image that we project to the outside world.

This essay is not intended to hurt anyone’s sentiments. I, in no way claim to be the epitome of all things cultural. As I have mentioned before, this is just a thought, a thought born out of boredom. But thoughts are the genesis of a social change, thoughts are the beginning of the basic principles that we live and die for today, including liberalism.



(8 October 2011, New Delhi)

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