Saturday, August 11, 2012

About a year ago, on her way back from the workplace at the heart of the industrial wasteland, Medusa was sitting next to a student. Medusa had always liked this boy, he was courteous, funny, attentive and regular in classes, and made an attempt to communicate- all virtues that Medusa cherishes more than ever before.

This boy asked Medusa, "Ma'am, why don't you have a talk with the first year girls?"
Medusa: "About what?"
Boy: "Ma'am, they wear jeans to college. Why don't you ask them to stop?"

Medusa, completely flabbergasted and extremely unhappy, on various counts, croaks a reply: "But so do I. In fact, I am wearing jeans right now!!!"
Boy, unfazed: "But that's different."

Medusa, summoning up all the authority that she could muster, tells the boy off. And then continues with her confusion and discomfort, till this piece of news makes her sit up and rethink all her discomfort. Medusa distinctly remembers the time when there was a furore against the comments made by the principal of Asuthosh College, about students needing to wear decent clothes (read, no jeans) and the more recent Muralidhar college one. Incidentally, the reactions to these events, differentiated in time and in space, have been more or less similar- the authorities have been called "traditional", "fundamentalist". "patriarchal", "non-modern", and increasingly, "taliban". 

The thing common about all these reactions is that, they all manage to posit the offending authoritarian group/ person as something distinct from us progressive, modern liberal secular subjects: aberrations, and worse- anachronisms. So, if these offending people/ voices are merely blasts from the past, religious fundamentalists in a secular world, then the swiftness with which they can be relegated to an outside, is amazing. And this outside ensures the comfort with the inside, societies freed of "criminal types", humans freed of beasts

In such a scenario, when Medusa seeks to question the ease with which her student censured the clothes worn by his peers, she finds herself unable to posit her student in any of those comfortable categories. His engagement and sensitivity towards contemporary politics and society, and his interaction with peers and teachers, seem perfectly satisfactory- to Medusa. Then what gives him the moral authority to criticise clothes worn by women, and expect his criticism to be ratified by his teacher, who will, in turn, penalise them by bringing the force of her authority to rest upon them? Especially when, this teacher herself is wearing jeans, something he clearly thinks girls should not wear?

However, while he did not comment on Medusa's jeans, in fact treated it as something distinctly different from those of the "first year girls", many others did. Her parents, some guy in the bus, some whispers in the corridors and some other women members of the faculty. Her parents are neither aberrations, nor anachronisms, but they worry about what the PEOPLE will say to her clothes, because they know that discrimination against women on the basis of WHATEVER, is not surprising, shocking yes, but not unexpected. Her parents worry, and her student forces his opinion, because discrimination against women is STRUCTURAL, it is SYSTEMIC, and the longer feminist critique of instances of discrimination and violence fools itself by calling these aberrations, the longer is the road to an end to it? If an end can be thought of, that is.

1 comment:

  1. This student of ours is nothing but a rhizomic extension of the structure which only allows behavior (in terms of lifestyle in general) which is structured (and therefore not unfamiliar) and does not spill over over-determining categories! He is born with a collective unconscious that his biological sex has by default given him the right to question and play self-appointed moral police to the opposite sex, if they tend to be “different” from what is demanded of them. May be he found your case “different” simply because you are from the city and can afford to be “flippant” as city people are famed to be; but girls from his locality, the industrial wasteland, cannot! I guess he was talking in the capacity of a “local” father-figure well-disposed to “protect” his girls from any corruption…jeans, in this case!
    Actually, jeans have a rather interesting cultural history, as you are very much aware. It has travelled from the margins to the centre of the fashion world…but small town girls wearing jeans has important political ramifications: first, they are opting for menswear (no matter how innovatively designed women’s jeans have flooded the market) thereby debunking gender expectation; second, they are wearing something that was meant for hypermasculine American cowboys with shadowy lives…I am sure that student of ours does not know this, but as I said jeans too have entered the cultural imagination as something to be detested, for they epitomize non-conformity in several ways!
    Anyway, in general, the problem is if you do not conform to gender-determining clothes (or behavior), you have to face the frown. Remember the day I went out with you for the handicraft fair? Remember, I was clothed in something in-between? I mean a short kurta, jeans, a long stole, and dark glasses? I could sense the curiously disapproving gazes on me on the bus, on the street, in the fair and later inquisitive questions on Facebook after I uploaded the pictures taken by you.
    I remember having to answer endless questions about my cosmetic kit, and in many a gathering, have heard my cosmetic kit being cogitated upon as a marker of ‘abnormality’ or a manifestation of my mindless extravagance…as if splurging on yourself was a sin!
    Questions of class and gender get curiously mixed up in this heady concoction of curiosity, censure, envy and humiliation. As for our profession (the noblest of all, as they claim), if you are sartorially dressed, you cannot be a good teacher, as if teaching meant leading the life of a hermit! Any deviation from the expected image is reproached most mercilessly….You need to be a conformist, the traditional (read asexual) “bhalo chhele” or “bhalo meye” with oil-dripping, centre-parted hair, unostentatious clothes (better still if they are not ironed and have holes in them), and in general exhibiting revulsion for things perky as in shopping, eating-out, spending money on yourself, etc.
    So, the questions you have posed would be asked forever, and nothing would change! And as for our colleagues, no matter how much accepting they pretend to be at times, you and I are at least aware of the repugnance they harbor for us! They are too gentle not to give expression to it! I can’t thank our luck enough!