When it comes to women, I've been having a lot of arguments, lately. Arguments with women, about women. At a meeting of writers, recently, we ended up having that most delectable of arguments - women, clothes and 'provocation'.
The debate about dress codes is not new. What was new was that it was us, the women, who were in favour of exercising restraint.
What was really new, to me, was that I agreed.
It was strange because I'm not queasy about skin-shows.
I like daring tops... Skirts, straps, transparent fabric... Tube tops and low-waist jeans, sometimes. But I also exercise restraint, depending on time and place. Partly, it is because of my work, because I am often out in buses, rickshaws or walking across a crowded street. Partly, because I respect the sensibilites of the people I'm visiting (based on my idea of their sensibilities).
Frankly, if I could afford to, I'd dress in skimpy, diaphanous clothes all the time.
With brevity, my wardrobe has a more lasting relationship, than has the soul of my wit (as the length of this post is witness).
But I have learnt that bare skin is going to attract attention.
Nudity, or the visible shape of a figure, draws our attention. It doesn't have to be a great shape. Like another good lady said, the sight of curves, of flesh, of a live, warm body - that is exciting!
And by 'our', I mean all of us. Men AND women.
A shirtless man will be looked at, too. A tight tee will make women focus on a man's body more specifically than an expensive jacket. (Salman Khan is a case in point.)
Everybody gawks when there's skin on show.
That is a given. But a man who is not used to skin-on-show is just going to gawk a little harder, lech more obviously. It may not be polite, but hey... spitting isn't either. There's even a law against it; it happens anyway. And there's no law against leching...
Which is why I don't wearing a tube top too often. I may not worry if I'm at a club, but at a railway station, I worry.
Not because I'm afraid of molestation or abuse or verbal harassment (there are more opportunities for violence and violation in a club, rather than a train) but because I understand that I might attract so much attention that I'm not happy with it, any longer.
Is this elitist? I don't know.... I'm not elite; I don't think I can afford the elitism.
But I do know that the concept of 'invitation' and 'provocation' is very, very subjective and culture-specific.
In my village, a girl wearing a kneelength skirt would raise eyebrows.
In my under-grad days, a girl wearing 70s-style bell-bottoms raised eyebrows.
In my post-grad college, nothing much raised eyebrows... Ooh, yes, Sarees did. In this 'cool' college, people assumed that you wore a saree to attract attention.
At the other end of the spectrum, my grandma thought that only married women should wear sarees. It wasn't decent for unmarried sylphs to go baring their tempting tummies.
The problem with cities is, there are all colours of the clothing-provocation spectrum in each corner of each suburb.
Fine, so you won't find a rickshaw-wala in a swank pub - which is what you're really paying big bucks for, right? - but when you step outside the pub, and want to return to the safety of your home, he's there. And yes, you're going to shock him, attract him, make him want to touch you.
I know enough women who carry shawls and jackets for this reason - they come off for one set of people; they're put on for another set.
Elitist? I don't know.... maybe yes.
There have been times when I've let out a low whistle when a really delicious body walks past. And my argument was the same as that of men - you don't want to attract attention, don't look so good. Your body, you dress as you please. My mouth, I whistle....
Like the good lady who initiated this discussion pointed out, even women can feel the palpable attraction of a real body, in clothes that allow you to see it. It doesn't matter whether it's a guy or a girl....
You automatically want to reach out and touch this piece of heaven.
Some men will not impinge on this piece of heaven's state of heavenly unattainability.... some of us have been trained to exercise restraint.
One man, who was arguing against restraint (in clothing), said that the only way to tackle this problem was to train men. To teach them not to violate a woman's personal space.
But we all agree that violation, in any case, has little to do with clothes. Most women can vouch for the fact that harassment or abuse often happens when you're dressed in demure salwaar-kameez-with-dupatta. When you look suitably non-threatening and accessible? When you least expected it?
Mini-skirts do not provoke rape. We know that.
The spoilt brat who's learnt that he can have anything he wants, with or without permission, will not wait to seek permission. He may not even wait to notice whether you're in a mini-skirt or a salwaar. You could be covered head-to-toe, and he could still have decided to commit what he knows is a violation, and a crime.
Another guy, who does not kidnap or rape, will take his chances and brush against you, or sing a song from some Hindi film.... A man who is possibly neither rich nor poor, but simply can't keep his hands to himself will pinch your bottom, or punch you in the bosom, or rub against you in a crowded bus.
And it's not just women. Men violate other men too, without waiting to seek permission. Men, in general, don't wear mini-skirts in public, do they? What provokes their getting felt-up? What about the little boys who get raped? Who can you blame?
Not the mini-skirts... Not the tube tops...
But this post is not about rape or even about violation. It is not even about men Vs women.
You can dismiss the 'violator' guys as frustrated desperate wierdos.
But a lot of women are also frustrated and desperate. I strongly suspect that the only reason we don't jump a man is that we aren't really strong enough to overpower him, and even if we did, it wouldn't help if he wasn't willing.
This post is about the impact of women's clothes, about skimpy clothes...
So what is one to do? I can hear people scream already - should we all disappear into the burqa?
My problem is not women who wear skimpy clothes- I am one of them!
My problem is, women refusing to acknowledge that their clothes, and the wonderful bodies barely restrained by the clothes, will turn men on... even the men we wish didn't exist.
My problem is, women who aren't honest with themselves. That they refuse to recognize that bare legs and exposed navels are very attractive.
Women often say that they dress to please themselves, because it is just a style statement, and has nothing to do with men. There was a time I said so too...
I see women in no-men-allowed situations - at home, in hostels - they dress differently. Comfortably. Not in really tight stuff. Not in plunging necklines. And when they do so, on special days, even in girls' hostels, they attract attention. And they enjoy this attention.
So, let's face it: There's this instinct to dress up and, consciously or sub, we want to be looked at. By women, by men too. By whoever we are drawn towards. We want their approval. We want their admiration.
We do not like the way this admiration is expressed.
But that is something we have no control over. There will be whistling, song-singing, comment-passing, the works...
And yes, I don't think we have a right to stop this expression of admiration.
If I have the freedom to wear what I like, I have no business getting offended by a man's reaction, as long as he is not hurting me.
My mother says that dressing skimpily in public is like dangling a carrot in front of a donkey. Well, then, we're dangling the carrots, and some of the donkeys are bound to get restive and start braying....
And before there comes some reader's slipper, smacking my face, let me add: I don't agree. Donkeys eat carrots and carrots don't go report them to the police. But as a metaphor for attraction, it holds true.
Very likely, we have nothing to fear. Very likely, we won't provoke anyone into violence.
But we've got stay aware that every time we step out in public, we run the risk of exciting admiration from people who are not necessarily desirable to us. We run the risk of getting attention we don't want. The more skin we show, the more people we attract.
There are two ways of dealing with this the awareness of the impact you're creating - One, let your wardrobe be dictated by the variations in all sections of the provocation spectrum.
Two, if you can afford it, move from home to car-with-tinted-windows to the bunglow of a friend whom you DO wish to attract, to car to home to.... don't see the sunshine; don't see people you don't want; don't be seen by people you don't want to attract.
If you can't afford it, too bad...