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On Women and their Right to Dress

Protestors gather in front of the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to protest the murder of Masha Amini by the morality police and show solidarity with the people of Iran, September 2022. (Esteban Osorio / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images)

With the protests in Iran and supporters of Iranians voicing their anguish against the Islamic Republic, women have found their autonomy at the centre of a storm yet again. Women and their clothing have been defined through the narrow kaleidoscopic lens of men era after era, across the globe.

Victorian-era English women were bound within the confines of corsets, which allowed little room for breathing and for movement- a metaphor almost, for their lives as "lesser citizens". The corset would gradually be phased out only in the twentieth century.

In India, the veil or purdah served both as a literal and figurative barrier to women. They were not to show their faces to men outside of their family members in any social situation. Very little of public life ever involved women. The purdah came under the ambit of the socio-political revolution around the mid-seventeenth century, owing to the efforts of visionaries like Raja Rammohan Roy. Later, the cause braided itself with the freedom struggle and slowly started wearing out due to the efforts of local and national leaders. Other items of clothing that were considered "feminine" and were imperative to a woman's attire until the better part of the nineteenth century, in the western world, were gloves and stockings. A woman showing too much skin on her arms or above her ankles was a woman of questionable character.

The colonial legacy of India also reduced the elegance and beauty associated with "Tawaif" to the image of a worldly seductress. The Devadasi system prevalent in Southern India too deteriorated under the British. Earlier, the women, married to the deity as young girls, enjoyed societal respect as caretakers of the temple who would perform rituals involving music and dance. However, they lost their status of respect and privilege under the British and thus, became subjected to exploitation.

Shobha Somappa Tarvgol, 18, sits in her one-roomed home in Modhur, India. Shobha became a Devadasi sex worker because there are no men in her family and she had little other means of supporting her sister, sick mother and grandmother.

In Sub-Saharan Africa the Middle East specifically the Arab world, women have been subjected to the burqa and the hijab, with little say in the matter of their own bodies. The ramifications of such a totalitarian imposition can be seen as the events unfold in Iran. Across space and time, men - white or coloured - have decided how a woman should or should not dress. The attachment of honour and purity to one's sexuality and attire is a condition painfully restricted only to women, by men and therefore, by society at large.

This is true even in the contemporary world, where the definitions may have shifted slightly but the fetishisation of a woman's body continues. Fishnet stockings or skinny jeans are often seen as sexy and may suggest a woman is promiscuous, while a Patiala suit is considered more traditional and implies a woman is modest. One is desirable in a twisted, coveted way, the other in a society-approved way. Both however are equally objectified. Even the humble saree has been subjected to such fetishisation, depending on how a woman chooses to drape it around herself and what blouse she chooses.

And all of this, of course, is about women who have some say in what they might wear. Many Indian families decide what their girls are going to wear as they transition to womanhood to this day. Salwar kameez with a dupatta on her bosom, or if the family is slightly liberal, a pair of pants and a t-shirt with a scarf to cover the unmentionable curve of her breasts.

Gail Omvedt, in her sociological study, has called women "lesser citizens" on account of the socio-economic and political freedom available to women, or the lack thereof. It makes for a great topic of debate and discussion- a woman's rights. Especially when, in reality, she is not even afforded the liberty to choose what she wants to wear.

Why then has there never been any major protest or opposition against this? Why is the rise of Iranian voices against the oppression of women and their autonomy over something so simple as how she dresses such a novelty?

Margaret Atwood once said "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them." That is simply the reason why there have never been major protests against the control of a woman's right to dress. The patriarchy and objectification of women have become so pervasive that women themselves have internalised it in the process of their socialisation. Until the better part of the twentieth century, women had to fight for the most basic of rights. For the right to vote, the right to partake in public life, the right to own and inherit property, for the right not to be killed (under practices of sati and female infanticide). While India embedded the right to vote for every citizen in the Constitution, and practices like female infanticide, dowry, rape, and moral policing have persisted even in the contemporary, post-modern world.

We see that in the execution of women and men who are finally rising against the Islamic Republic, after a young woman was killed by their morality police for her "improper hijab". We see that, even in the seemingly modern West, the leader of the free world- United States, where abortion rights and women's autonomy over their bodies have taken a hit with the overturning of Roe v. Wade. We see that in the rise in crimes against women of colour in the west, especially in the post-pandemic world. It is not a surprise then, that not many places in the world have seen the outbreak of protests demanding women's autonomy to dress as they wish. How is a woman to dream of such a thing, when she has to fear and fight for something so fundamental as her life on a daily basis?


Shabnoor Rahman is a student, and an aspiring writer with a deep love of books, especially ones that are existential, bordering on devastating. She loves history, art and architecture and finds great comfort and happiness in the ordinariness of life. She loves getting to know people and hearing their stories, and that is what she wants to be able to do in life - spend her life chasing stories and beauty.

One can reach her via email:

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