On 9 February 2008, remarks by the Chief Justice of Karnataka, Cyriac Joseph that immodest dressing was one reason for increasing crimes against women were reported in the press. The Honourable Chief Justice elaborated his statement. "Nowadays, women wear such kind of dresses even in temples and churches that when we go to places of worship, instead of meditating on God, we end up meditating on the person before us," he said.

He added, "provocative dresses that women wear in buses" put the "men travelling in buses" in awkward situations and hence, "women must dress modestly." He urged women to dress 'modestly' for the "safety and security of the people." This was part of his speech delivered at the launch of a journal, Supreme Court on Section 13 of the Indian Marriage Act, 1955, and the release of the monthly newspaper, Judicial Empire. The remarks were widely reported in the local press.

This is not the first time that women's attire has held centre-stage controversially; indeed the courts themselves have been down this edgy path before. More than 25 years ago, a Supreme Court judge had directed a secretarial staff at his office to stop wearing jeans at work. The lady complained to a local women's NGO and the moment it went up in arms against the diktat, the judge corrected his remark and said it was 'suggestive' and not 'prescriptive.'

A familiar battleground

Court officials naturally draw criticism for such events, in particular because they are expected to uphold people's rights, not come up with reasons why those rights may be violated, and certainly not to themselves indulge in such violations. But the more common battlegrounds for moral policing have been the schools and colleges that young women attend.

In September 1997, the co-educational Christ College in Bangalore banned girls from wearing jeans and short skirts, as they were termed 'indecent'. This resulted in a furore because boys could wear jeans no matter how tight they were. The ban was removed after much debate. In March 1999, Berhampore Girls College placed a placard at the gate banning entry to all girls not wearing the sari. The announcement endorsed a 1947 decision by the college authorities to ban any form of dress other than the sari for girls on the campus. A few students had attempted to break out of this mould; this spurred the non-teaching staff of the college into defending old traditions.

For women, fashion is regulated not only along lines of social distinction but also along lines of sexuality.

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In 2000, almost all girls' colleges in Kanpur implemented the dress code laid down by Akhil Bharthiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP, the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party) ruling that women cannot wear jeans or skirts to college. The issue flared up after two girls, Heena Kaisar and Chetna Bharatiya from S N Sen Girls College, Kanpur, assaulted their principal Madhulekha Vidyarthi for disallowing them entry into a farewell party on the campus because they were wearing jeans. While the assault on the principal cannot be condoned under any circumstance, this censorship on dress codes harks back to a history that repeatedly stresses socially sanctioned control over women's choice of dress.

Though accusing fingers were pointed directly at ABVP, Anand Mapuskar, Maharashtra State Secretary of ABVP at the time, said, "The ABVP has never enforced a dress code in college campuses all over the country. We had nothing to do with the dress code incident in Kanpur either. The management of several colleges has decided to enforce a dress code for women." The backlash was so severe that party MP Sushma Swaraj compelled the ABVP to distance itself from the controversy.

In September 2007, eight teachers of Bakhrahat Girls High School in Bishnupur, on the southern fringes of Kolkata, attended work eight days after they were heckled, threatened and humiliated by students, parents and even the general public for having worn the salwar-kameez to school. The police escorted them to duty. In a complaint lodged with the Bishnupur police station, the eight teachers said that they were scared to return to school.

The government-aided Bakhrahat Girls High School's managing committee had passed a verbal resolution in 2006 making it mandatory for all teachers to wear the sari. This resolution is violative of the state government and the Calcutta High Court's permission to the wearing of the salwar-kameez by teachers. Sulapani Bhattacharya, president of the West Bengal Board of Primary Education said, "There is no dress code for teachers working in state-aided schools. The government has not imposed any restriction on wearing salwar-kameez to school. As far as the government order goes, teachers are expected to come to school dressed in a decent manner." Eight of the 30 teachers of the school with a student-strength of 1500 stood firm in their decision to stick to wearing the salwar-kameez to school. They won.

Amidst all this, it should be noted that much positive change does occur without furore. Charusheela Balika Vidyalaya, an all-girls institution in Sheoraphuli, West Bengal, drew only complimentary headlines for converting the uniform of girls in the higher classes from the cumbersome sari to the convenient salwar-kameez. The principal of the school was commended for this 'progressive' step in the right direction. Many other institutions throughout the country have quietly made similarly practical choices.

A vice exclusive to women

Clothing for both men and women offers legitimacy to social distinctions. For women, fashion is regulated not only along lines of social distinction but also along lines of sexuality. Gradually therefore, clothes became a signifier of a woman's moral virtue. Morality is construed almost entirely in terms of sexual morality, because clothes, through their proximity to the body, encode the game of modesty and sexual explicitness, denial and celebration of pleasure.

What is telling, however, is that the long history of gender bias in the moral policing of dress. While for men, clothes were mainly indicative of social status, for women the criteria were different. Clothing and fashion became a means of social control, legitimising moral and social distinctions between and among women. Women of royal lineage had a different code of dress and fashion, even if, in some societies, they were denied the public space in which men functioned. In Mughal royal families and in high-caste Hindu families, women remained in purdah, meaning not only the item of clothing used to cover the body completely, but also the inner space of one's residential premises, which clearly marked out the space beyond which women within the family were not allowed to move out of.

And who defines modesty? Nearly all the definitions of modesty, continuing to this day, are created by men. Wearing clothes that are immodest, by patriarchal norms, for the sole purpose of tempting the male, is considered a social vice, but, a vice exclusive to women. Styles which expose too much of the feminine body are condemned for their enticement. Such fashions are considered inappropriate for a 'virtuous' woman. "Whether it is men ogling at a woman's plunging neckline, or women snidely suggesting that the reason a colleague ropes in men is because of her tight skirt, any act of sexual harassment or violence is first attributed to the woman's clothing, never to the man's lack of conduct," says journalist Radha Rastogi.

Following a proposal put forth in early 2005, at the National Conference for Women in Police at Musoorie in July 2005, the Kolkata police decided to adopt the Uttaranchal model where a lot of policewomen had swtiched over to the salwar-kameez to facilitate movement. The 450 women from the rank of inspector to constable can now sport the shirt-trousers-boot look or go the salwar-kameez-dupatta-pumps route as it offered room for greater comfort instead of the heavy belt with the trousers they found difficult to wear throughout their duty hours. The rule came into force at the end of 2007.

Our cultural vocabulary too suffers from a serious gender bias. Terms like decency, modesty, decorum, and morality assume new meanings when they are assigned to women. If you take a closer look, they are used mostly to refer to women alone. How 'decent' is the sight of men of all ages, shapes and size, nonchalantly moving about in designer Bermudas revealing hairy legs that border on the vulgar? How 'modest' is the sense of dress of men who sport transparent shirts, or wear jeans that show the tops of their underwear, or unbuttoned right down to the belly? No one points out the indecency of men wearing dhotis that show up their thighs the minute they begin to walk. Why?

Enforcement of the double standard is often also harsh. Censure of female ways of dressing highlights the moral judgement society makes on individual choice, if the 'individual' is a woman. This is precisely why, often, when a woman takes a step towards political autonomy, or, has in some way or other, toppled the apple cart of patriarchy, or moves towards equality with man, she is disrobed and stripped in public by men in power. It is a desperate measure to 'punish' her in public, to sexualise the woman who asserts and reinforces her subjectivity in a society that prefers to keep her as an object.' The only provocation Bhanwari Devi, a social worker saathin offered was that of defiance in intervening to stop a child marriage, and for this the lower caste woman was gang-raped by locals.