Indian women have given Tirath Singh Rawat, the chief minister of the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, a severe dressing down for his negative stereotyping of women who wear distressed jeans.
Speaking at a workshop on substance abuse among children, Rawat, who belongs to India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), recounted that on a recent flight, a woman, who was travelling with two children, was sitting next to him. She was “wearing gum boots and her jeans were torn at the knees,” he said, adding that “she runs an NGO, her knees are visible, she moves around in the society and kids are with her.” What values would she impart to children, he asked. What “kind of message” is she sending out to society, the minister wondered?
India women, he said, are running toward nudity.
Rawat’s equating of women in ripped jeans with questionable morals has triggered a tidal wave of memes and posts on social media. In addition to posting pictures of themselves in ripped jeans, women have ridiculed him. He has been reprimanded for “propagating misogyny.”
Jumping to conclusions about a woman’s character and values from the clothes she wears, the length of her skirt or sleeves, the job she holds, her hairstyle, etc. is not uncommon. Single or independent women are often considered to be of “loose morals.” People are quick to label an English-speaking woman wearing Western clothes or living alone as “immoral.”
“Women in foreign countries wear jeans and T-shirts, dance with other men and even drink liquor, but that is their culture. It’s good for them, but not for India, where only our traditions and culture are OK,” Babulal Gaur, a BJP minister said in 2013.
Members of the BJP and its fraternal organizations see themselves as custodians of Indian culture and values. They have appropriated to themselves the right to define right and wrong, and acceptable or inappropriate behavior.
Rawat questioned the values of a woman because her attire did not fit in with his idea of what a good Indian mother must wear. To men like Rawat, a woman must not bare her knees or wear “Western” clothes. Similar rules do not apply to men. Rawat has never raised objections to men wearing shorts, though the minister did say “Where am I taking my son, showing his knees and in tattered jeans?” Subsequently, Rawat clarified that his quarrel was not with jeans per se but ripped ones. Wearing “torn” jeans is “not right,” he said.
Moral guardians are a dime a dozen in patriarchal societies. Patriarchs like being in control. They assert their position and power by controlling women, their choices and decisions. Any attempt by the woman to exercise her autonomy or choices is countered with insults, humiliation, abuse, and violence.
Name calling and humiliating women are important weapons in their arsenal. In 2012, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then Gujarat’s chief minister, referred to Congress Party parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor’s wife as a “Rs 50-crore [500 million rupees] girlfriend,” in the context of a controversy in 2010, when Tharoor, then a minister, reportedly had sweat equity transferred to Sunanda Pushkar, then his partner. “Wah, kya girlfriend hai! (Wow, what a girlfriend!),” Modi had remarked at a public rally.
When West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced monetary compensation for rape survivors, a Communist Party of India-Marxist leader Anisur Rahman wanted to know how much she would “take for getting raped.” When women protested the 2012 gang-rape of a woman in Delhi, Abhijit Mukherjee, then a Congress parliamentarian and son of then President Pranab Mukherjee dismissed the women protesters as “dented and painted” women.
Crude sexist and misogynist remarks are always troubling as they diminish women and encourage a culture that justifies violence against them. Such remarks are all the more worrying when they are made by politicians and ministers as they emerge from patriarchal and misogynistic mindsets. What laws can Indian women expect to protect them from violence at home, on streets and in the workplace, when the country’s lawmakers are misogynists?