Actor Tannishtha Chatterjee on the age-old debate on ‘what women should wear,’ how we are conditioned to question a woman’s dressing choices and wanting to be respected for one’s femininity.
I was a part of a discussion on a news channel about the recent Gurugram molestation case. If I just say ‘recent molestation’, it would probably be confusing because every second day a shocking incident is being reported. So which recent one am I talking about? And by the time this is read, some more instances would have happened. Well, I am talking about the incident on the evening of June 16 when two students were molested on the Mehrauli-Gurgaon road after buying alcohol.
The discussion on the news channel was supposed to applaud the stance and bravery of the two women. And it was meant to be a discussion and not a debate. But of course, something that I thought could not have two sides, still became a debate.
The boring argument came up again – What were the two women doing at 10 pm in a liquor shop? Why were they wearing jeans and a skirt? According to one of the speakers, this was to lure men. That speaker also said, “When a man sees a woman’s body, he gets attracted. You can’t do anything about it. So women have to dress up in a dignified way.” He also pointed a personal finger at me, stating that I belong to an industry of loose morals, and so I should shut up. After the debate – which now had become a debate about what women should wear – got over, I recalled an incident that happened to me a few months ago.
I had bought some medicines from a medical shop and was walking back home at 9 pm in Mumbai. There was a short passage where there were no buildings, just an open space. A few trucks were parked there. Since I was walking on the footpath, I continued walking along it behind the trucks.
I did not realise that a few men were sitting and drinking alcohol because they were in a hidden corner. They looked at me, and it was a scary look, so I started running. They followed me as I started running even faster. I tried calling a friend while I was running and then just entered the first society building I saw. And as they saw me get in, they turned away. I forgot to mention I was wearing a full-sleeved long kurta with jeans. Fully covered.
But I realise that these discussions and protests can only do so much. Indian society is too diverse and absolutes are too simple to be assumed. So I thought I was fully covered and just walking past only at 9 pm – a decent time according to me – with medicines back home. But may be my fingers had well done nails and that looked alluring for the men to chase me, who really knows. We are such a diverse country from such extreme backgrounds and cultures that it is very difficult to debate in absolutes.
I was once dating a man who thought that he had the right to decide what I should wear. Once, while I was on a red carpet, he got annoyed with my outfit, which he thought was too revealing. I was shocked when he first expressed his discomfort. I had never experienced anything like that before in any of my relationships. I could not believe that someone who on the surface seemed so liberal, was actually deep down an ‘Indian male’. He talked about ownership. He actually used those words.
Many of my female friends have experienced similar situations. Once a friend told me that her boyfriend always got annoyed if she wore clothes which he termed as ‘sexy’. She argued with him, “But I am going to a party at a friend’s [house], I am not taking public transport, what is your problem?” His reply was, “I am possessive and I don’t want other men to look at your body parts.” My friend would respond, “How do you know they are looking at my body parts? I don’t feel it. I would feel uncomfortable if I was looked at. These are my friends and it is okay as long as I feel comfortable.” His reply: “No, it’s not about your comfort. It is about my comfort. And you don’t know men. I am a man, so I know.” My friend’s reply: “Oh, so you look at women like that? So you think everyone is looking at me.” And of course that infuriated him beyond what my friend could fathom.
But maybe it’s not their fault. I feel that getting agitated does not and can not change the mindset. These men are also victims. Victims of the same conditioning that makes it so difficult for us to be free. From the time a girl starts going through a change in her body, she is told what to hide. In our teenage years, our teachers and mothers are very aware of whether we are wearing anything to attract more attention. That slowly becomes a brother’s and father’s domain. The next step is your partner telling you what to wear. And of course every other random person on the street also has an opinion on what women should wear. It’s only for their good. Otherwise, they are the ones who will suffer. Of course it’s because they care for us and society at large has also told them that it is dangerous to dress up and go out in public unless you want to attract a man.
A few years ago, I was shooting for a film in Varanasi where I was playing a cop. I was shooting on the streets and was in uniform quite a bit. My equation with society changed for those 15 days. That uniform gave me something that I had never experienced before in India. It is the first time I played a woman in uniform and I have to admit that the uniform did give me a strange sense of power.
Every street I walked, I was saluted and revered like I have never been before. Of course they could not tell that I was not a real cop. I was just playing one. I felt secure and confident in a way which was very special. I was looked at very differently. In one instance, we went to Sarnath after the shoot and I was still in my costume. The police at the gate mistook me for a real senior police officer. So as my co-actors were buying tickets and I was standing at the gate, the policemen at the gate asked me to come in. “Arre maam aap andar aiyiye, ticket ki zaroorat nahin hai (Ma’am please come in, there is no need for a ticket)”. I, of course, explained to them that I wasn’t actually a copy. Many such instances actually happened and I started walking differently and entering my hotel differently with my costume on. Inside the lift, strange men looked at me with respect, unlike sometimes the look you get when you are a woman alone with four other men inside an elevator. Women will understand what look I am talking about.
When I shared this feeling with a friend, he said, “You experienced being a man for 15 days.” Really? I thought it was the power of the uniform. But it is a combination of both I guess. It is the power of the uniform which is also a symbol of masculinity. I walked the streets, drove a police jeep, had chai at a local stall without being looked at as I am always looked at as a woman. But is that the equality I am asking for? To be a man? No, I guess I want my femininity to be respected, my choices to be respected. In order to exercise my freedom of choice, I don’t want to become a man.
So the solution to my dressing problem cannot end up with me wearing a cop’s uniform all the time so that men respect me and are scared of me. May be the solution lies in expressing oneself more outrageously so that society gets used to not looking anymore. I have been to many nudist beaches in the West but never witnessed as much nudity as I have in the Kumbh Mela back home. And it is such a large gathering of humanity with nudity of men and women all around you. But no one gazes. May be the solution lies in continued manifestations through mass gatherings like the Maha Kumbh. A mela of nude humanity, a mela where everyone is free and no one is gazing.
Tannishtha Chatterjee is a national award winning Indian actress who has worked both in India and internationally, and is known for films like Brick Lane, Parched, UNindian, Lion and Island City among others.