Sari vs Salwar kameez: Narendra Modi's dress code problem
A contentious decision to regulate dress codes for teachers in Gujarat has raked up allegations of a RSS conspiracy to marginalise the Muslim community in Modi's own backyard.
BJP Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has made a valiant attempt to shake off his 'communal' image, but a contentious decision to regulate dress codes for teachers in Gujarat has raked up allegations of a RSS conspiracy to marginalise the Muslim community in his own backyard.
According to this report in the Economic and Political Weekly, the enforcement of a rule that female teachers must only wear sari is causing disconcertion among Muslim women in the state.
One incident in particular, where a Muslim woman in Salwar Kameez was sent home for saying that she could not wear a sari in accordance with her family's wishes, has generated a lot of anger.
According to the report:
The officer then subjected her to a lecture on how just as she believed in Allah for her students too she was like Allah in the classroom. When told that her family would not permit her to wear a saree, the official apparently suggested that a burqa could be worn over it and taken off in school... Since this incident, Muslim teachers have been understandably upset with what they see as humiliation of their community and an infringement of their rights to dress in accordance with their faith. Given the communalised environment of Gujarat, it is not surprising that this particular incident has sparked anger in the Muslim community, which feels that the move to enforce sarees is directed towards Muslim women who usually wear salwar-kameezes
The fact that the officer concerned was later found to be a member of the RSS has only fueled the anger in the state.
This is reportedly the first time that the government has sought to regulate teachers dress codes in the state. The Indian Express also reported on the anger caused by the ruling, tracking the story of 38-year-old teacher Chhaya Upadhyay, who wrote to Narendra Modi, appealing to him to repeal the law.
The letter noted that "she had been campaigning against this "ghost law" for 13 years at the panchayat, taluka and district levels until it became official, forcing her to seek the CM's intervention".
Although the dress codes also apply to men, it is the insistence on the sari that is causing so much disconcertion.
This is unsurprising, given that it is women who are traditionally considered to be the repository of cultural tradition. This is even more marked in post-colonial countries like India, where while men were expected to familarise themselves with the 'outside' western culture in order to prosper, the woman's role was to ensure that all connection with the culture was not lost. Popular gender studies academics like Gayathri Spivak have posited that this is one of the reasons that women are regulated more, and are judged more harshly for deviating from what is perceived to be the cultural norm.
In other words, the regulation of women's attire and the perception that they are being forced to compromise on their 'Muslim' identity in Gujarat, will be viewed as a massive threat by the community as a whole. Compromise the woman, and compromise the entire community.
While there are obvious patriarchal and communal issues that arise from this entire incident and the line and tenor of the reactions from both sides, the more immediate issue here is the potential political fallout for Modi.
While Narendra Modi may have little or nothing to do with the incident or even the new directive (which is unlikely given that the Indian Express report notes that he himself handed out appointment letters which contained the new dress code), the fact that he has made no move to comment on an issue that is generating so much anger in his state will do him no favours.
His silence will do nothing to convince fence sitters that he does not have a communal agenda or that he is able to control the RSS, and will only give his detractors more fuel.
Put simply, he cannot afford to have any kind of 'communal' controversy attached to him, even if it is something that arises from something as innocuous as a dress code for teachers in Gujarat.
As the EPW article notes, "This in a state which has seen horrific cases of sexual abuse against students training to be teachers (as in the infamous PTC college, Patan, where successive batches of students were sexually abused by the male faculty), not to mention the horrors perpetrated against women in the 2002 riots carried out under the state's gaze. However tragic and farcical, it is most likely that the younger women holding contract jobs and women belonging to the Muslim faith are the ones who will face the brunt of the punitive measures if they fail to comply with the dress code."
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