The clothes Nazis are out again. Cricket captain Mithali Raj is getting trolled for posing in a dress for a selfie with friends. And she is being told all sorts of things: "objectionable", "indecent", "not expected", "no self-respect", "is she a porn star", "take that photograph down" et al.
Not the first time for Raj. On August 22, an electrical engineer from Silchar, Assam, made snide comments on a photograph of hers that had “fasina (at her armpit)”. Nor is she the only one to be grilled over choice of clothes: Priyanka Chopra got trolled for her “short dress”, “showing her legs” and forgetting “Indian culture” when meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Berlin, in May 2017; Deepika Padukone, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Soha Ali Khan, Sunny Leone and the wives of cricketers Irfan Pathan and Md Shami are some of the others at the receiving end in recent times.
I call it the “aunt syndrome”. Remember Bertie Wooster’s aunts, those who chewed “broken bottles” (in PG Wodehouse’s inimitable words) and were the scourge of his childhood? Every Indian girl also grows up with some formidable aunts in the family, who constantly put her under the microscope and make caustic comments about her clothes, her hairstyle, her manners. The social media clothes Nazis might be complete strangers, but they think they too have the right to ask a woman (like her cantankerous aunts): “Why are you wearing this?”
May men who comment on women’s clothing and women who wear those clothes have the sense to live in separate enclaves.
The problem of what to wear has haunted women forever, says anthropologist Emma Tarlo in her book, Clothing Matters. Because clothes are not just clothes, they have social, cultural and political implications. Clearly. Even Sushma Swaraj, the sartorial prototype of the “adarsh Hindu nari” couldn’t escape the heat last year, when she met Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, swathed from head to toe in a pink saree and cape.
Many on social media had a problem with that: she shouldn’t have covered herself up like that to “appease the mullahs” they said.
The phrase “male gaze” was coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in 1975 to explain the way visual art and literature represent women from a masculine view. Needless to say, clothes Nazis are usually men. Take Mithali Raj’s case: “Delete it mam it's not good! people idolize you but this dressing sense doesn't is,” wrote NoOne (@MyselfKing12), a man from Andhra Pradesh.
A 19-year-old from Nallasevipuram village, Tamil Nadu, @naveenashok2, wrote:
Hey mithali raj u not a actrees.u r a cricketer .y so glamorous— naveenashok (@naveenashok2) September 6, 2017
“are you porn star???? Have you any respect? asked one @awaiss11111. Kerala man @NandagopalR4, who seems to post only Prime Minister Modi pictures on his Twitter account, asked her to “Be an Indian women (sic)”.
Not good to see you in this costumes. Don't mistake me. Be an Indian women that too TAMIL NADU WOMEN.— Nandagopal.R (@NandagopalR4) September 6, 2017
@Pushpak97662453 said that such a picture will “will finish the respect of your fanc. (sic)”
While Nataraja HR from Bangalore, who seems to be a die-hard Raj fan, posted a stark: “I dont like this selfie raj.”
Digital marketers say that social media engagement is like window-shopping. It’s fun, free, impulse-driven, compelling, worth a few hours of your time, and allows you to simply walk away and find something new. It’s essentially sidewalk behaviour. Add that to yet another street conduct that most women around the world face every day. And you have a toxic combo.
As feminist author Jessica Valenti writes in the NYT piece "What Does a Lifetime of Leers Do to Us?", women are immensely aware of what they wear because from the moment girls are past puberty, catcalls, groping and flashing become a part of their lives, forcing them to change and restrict how they appear in public. Clothes Nazis invariably mix and match those two street behaviours on social media.
A handful of those who bravely supported Raj talked about equality or choice. Some said, “Why can’t she? Just because she is woman?” Someone called it “her choice”.
Equality and choice are two words widely used by feminists. Equality has been the dominant paradigm ever since Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. Unfortunately, it has not worked in all these years. And the newer type of “lifestyle feminism” (my life, my choice) is also proving to be too individualistic to solve collective issues of women.
Clothes tell a story
Our clothes tell the story of who we are, where we come from and how we navigate through life. Here’s a real-life story of women’s clothing in a country that allows unlimited freedom to men: Afghanistan. There parents often take recourse to what is called the “bacha posh” or a girl dressed like a boy. They dress girls up as boys, cut their hair short, encourage them to adopt the mannerisms of boys, work outside the home and be as confident as boys. In most cases, girls return to womanhood once they reach the age of marriage.
Some prominent Afghan women politicians have once been bacha posh. Say, Bibi Hakmeena, a councillor from Khost province. In a BBC documentary, she has recounted how her parents turned her into a boy in 1979, the year the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan and she was just 10. She still wears traditional male clothes, the peran-tomban, loose pyjamas and a baggy knee-length shirt with black turbans and never goes out without a Kalashnikov.
I am reminded of a comment made by feminist and author Germaine Greer during a session at an India Today Conclave on why women wear what they wear. She had said that she detested both the all-enveloping burqa as well as its antithesis, the bikini, because both had come about in response to the male gaze: “But both can live in separate streets, till such time when the social need for both would wither away.”
Till such time, may men who comment on women’s clothing and women who wear those clothes have the sense to live in separate enclaves.