As a North American of South Indian descent, I have always been torn between living my life based on the culture I’ve grown up in versus the culture my family is still affixed to. The one thing that has bothered me, and makes me angrier the older I get, is South Asian beliefs when it comes to how a woman should dress.
There is this absurd belief in South Asian families that the way a woman dresses somehow determines her character and what she is like as an individual. Somehow, wearing a shalwar kameez with a dupatta makes you a person of higher character than if you wore it without a dupatta. Short sleeves are taboo, jeans are “so western” and frowned upon, and shorts and small dresses are the best way to get an ugly glare from your aunt.
Every time I’m in India, there is always a family member that dictates how I dress. I get a look of disapproval if I do not wear a dupatta, and a deep sigh from a family member who will then tell me to cover up because “there are men around.”
Showing skin is a taboo, wearing make-up makes you an attention-seeker, and the only important thing about your appearance is what others think of you. Or so I’m told.
This only applies to women, by the way. A man can walk around in tiny shorts or wear a tank top with all his skin showing, and no one bats an eye. But god forbid a woman shows anything above her ankle, and all hell breaks loose.
This is seen so often, and it is disgusting to watch how judgmental South Asians can be when it comes to clothing – especially older women. For example, I have female family members that constantly bash on Bollywood actresses because they’re “showing too much skin.” They’ll talk about how disgusting it is, how “we’re not supposed to be like that in India,” and how it’s wrong, as if it somehow personally hurts them if an actress, somewhere far away, decides to dress a certain way.
Modesty is a problematic concept when it comes to how it is used to judge people; there is this idea that covering up makes you “modest” and “respectable” and this is a view that is just plain wrong. This is a way of looking at things that does nothing but hurt people in the end; it tells people, even young girls, that their worth is based off how they dress and not off anything else.
Us brown women have it hard. We can never win because, no matter how hard we try to please people, they will always find an issue with how we look or behave. We are told that society’s opinion of us is the most important thing in the world; that we have to be quiet and submissive, that we have to be “modest” women who dress and behave appropriately.
Quite frankly, I’m tired of it. I’m tired of this idea that a woman is of lesser character if she wears tight clothes or shows her skin. What I wear does not define me. Wearing a tight skirt doesn’t make me any less intelligent or unique as a human being that a full saree would. Dressing a way that is not seen as “modest” does not take away my accomplishments. It does not, and should not define me in any way. It is not up to anyone else how I dress – that is for me to decide, and no one has a right to judge me on that.
It’s also concerning to me how this sort of culture is still so prevalent because it leads into many other, bigger issues. This sort of mentality is where rape culture stems from. This emphasis on how a woman dresses leads to people questioning a person’s character based off her attire, or saying she was “asking for it” as a result of what she was wearing.
South Asian families might want to upkeep tradition and culture, but there are many problematic beliefs that are just too outdated for today’s society. We need to remember that women are not defined by minuscule things such as clothing. In a day and age where so many people are fighting hard for women’s rights, and to gain gender equality, this sort of mentality only sets us back.
So, this one is for people who still harbor this kind of attitude – grow up. Realize that the way a woman dresses has nothing to do with what she is like as an individual. Understand that you have absolutely no right to judge someone for what they choose to wear.
Stop spreading this narrow-minded mentality, and instead, show the next generation that there are more important things in life to worry about than what clothing a person has on.