By Alice McGettigan
Much is written about what to wear in India, less about why. There are strict expectations from women in regards to clothing that many western women choose not to follow.
As a white western woman (WWW) Does how I dress in India matter? What are the implications?
I myself am British. Some WWW from other countries will relate to some of the broader themes. Some women of colour (WOC) from other western countries will too. I fully acknowledge the specific problems faced by WOC travelling. The experience of WOC will be different from white women. It’s part of white privilege to be able to travel free of consideration of racism. Hence, I write specifically of my own experience.
A huge part of travel is learning about other cultures. To respect a culture, you must first find out what the expectations are.
India is an enormous and diverse country with a plethora of different ideologies and opinions. Generally, a conservative country in regards to women’s dress. There’s an expectation of modesty, covering the legs, shoulders and cleavage. The clothes should also be loose. The most popular ensemble being the churidar and kurta, with a dupatta (scarf) to further hide the female form beneath.
If you dress inappropriately, you’ll be aware of it. You’ll notice looks and tuts from men and women alike. I experienced this the first time I was there. Yes, the looks from men made me feel uncomfortable. From women though it made me feel embarrassed and disrespectful. I quickly made more effort to dress respectfully and the change in reception was tangible.
The full answer is far too complex for the scope of this piece. As the ancestors of colonialists, it’s important to note although pre-colonial India was not without gendered oppression, more sexually liberal attitudes were stigmatised during this period in India. A factor in developing strict social attitudes that persist today.
19th century missionaries began the war against Indian women’s clothing. The sari was discouraged and altered to make it more palatable to the colonial eye. Traditional clothing was considered primitive and indecent, perceived as something to be corrected. Colonialists saw local culture as something to dominate and alter to suit them not as something to embrace.
In modern India it’s about context. In the nightclubs in Mumbai tiny dresses and heels are everywhere. In the Goa bubble bikinis are normalised. In many places, more rural communities or religious places and events even more liberal Indian women will dress modestly.
Indian women have every right to challenge cultural norms. They of course, understand the nuances of the culture and implications of what they’re wearing and when. As WWW we lack this depth of understanding of the culture to challenge it. In fact, we’re unconsciously repeating colonial patterns in thinking we have a right to. Instead of allowing Indian women shape and define what’s acceptable.
Impact on Women
Cultivating respectful relationships with local women is something to strive for. Respecting social expectations is an important foundation for that, especially with older women and rural communities. Why create barriers to connections?
Consider the perspective of a woman who, due to strong cultural attitudes has not had the same free choices on what to wear. Shares a different cultural belief about clothing.
Imagine how she might feel sitting next to you in a skimpy top. Or if her partner looks at you. Or her young child.
How would you feel if you’re with an elderly relative watching a strip show? There are some parallels there. The uncomfortableness.
It’s a simple concept really. To prioritise individual women’s feeling and comfort. This is an important part of respecting a culture. Travel is after all, a huge privilege.
Many modern Indian women are freer from gendered expectations. Attitudes to clothing, love and marriage for instance have relaxed in certain circles. However, Narayan (2018) discusses how sexist ideas are so endemic, most women have internalised misogyny to a certain extent.
Women, in a variety of cultures, are often a fundamental part of shaming behaviours deemed inappropriate by patriarchy. For example, ‘slut shaming’ as a form of social policing. Kashyap (2019) recognises the need to understand this comes from internalised ideology. Individual women are not to blame for the perpetuation of a powerful cultural narrative.
There are parallels with the way hypersexual culture operates in the west, which has been discussed extensively by Walter (2010), Levy (2005) and Penny (2011). This perspective demonstrates how potentially as WWW, our culture has conditioned us to be resistant to modesty as it devalues our worth in a culture that prioritises sexuality from women.
The tendency to blame women and their clothing for men’s actions is a mechanism of rape culture. Government officials in India have repeatedly demonstrated this attitude. Indian tourism minister Mahesh Sharma advised foreign women ‘don’t wear skirts’ to avoid assault (Thomas, 2016). Congress legislator Dipak Chakraborty blamed ‘eve teasing’ (the widespread practise of sexual harassment) on “short dresses and short skirts” (Kapoor, 2012)
This is demonstrably untrue. Women of all ages and races are raped at endemic levels in every country of the world every single day, regardless of what they’re wearing.
It’s possible to understand this and still see a certain degree of hypocrisy when WWW complain about the sexualisation from men or disapproving looks from women, whilst dressed in a way that is objectively shocking in India.
Expectations and the culture are different. Both men and women internalise these ideals.
As travellers we’ve chosen to be in a country. As a WWW, you can choose to dress as you please and the majority of the time not face any significant problems. Many of the local women that you see every day and thousands of others don’t have that free choice.
Rape is culture so endemic it often frames the discourse. When women’s appropriate dress is discussed, the onus is on men’s perceptions and protecting yourself. Respecting social expectations, and more broadly the choices we make as women shouldn’t framed by appeasing men or victim blaming.
Why WWW don’t?
Many WWW in India choose not to conform to clothing expectations. It’s important to note I’m not criticising individual women for their personal choices. Everyone is free to decide for themselves.
Yet not following clothing expectations is so normalised it’s interesting to deconstruct. Why do WWW choose not to? Is it that it’s part of our own cultural conditioning? Or do we think it doesn’t apply to us? Is it so normalised we haven’t considered it?
White feminism and privilege
Over 30 years ago Barrett and McIntosh (1985) observed how feminist theory was entrenched in racism and white privilege due to the dominance of white women in shaping the discourse. Soon after, Crenshaw (1989) coined the term intersectionality to describe the intersecting oppressions of sexism and racism WOC face.
Srivastava (2005) found discussions surrounding race in feminist organisations still tend to be dominated by white self-examination and guilt. Striving to empathise with victims of racial oppression rather than work to dismantle it. This has blinded many white feminists the struggles WOC face. Repeatedly and to this day. In order to not continue to repeat the patterns of the past we must reframe our perspective.
Lugones’ (1987) conceptualisation of ‘World traveling’ emphasises plurality as central to feminist discourse. Rather than striving for unity, which implies erasure of difference: we should pursue solidarity. Love and acceptance and celebration of our differences.
This is an excellent way to frame the approach we take as travellers. Why do we travel? To learn about other cultures, Or to enjoy what they have whilst imposing our own culture? This only serves to narrow our understanding and appreciation of another culture.
You don’t choose privilege. If you don’t have it you can’t get it but if you’ve got it you can’t get rid of it. We’re all blinded by internalised ideas about race, class and privilege. As WWW we have to learn to decentre ourselves in the conversation.
Colonialism and endemic racism are contributing factors to enforced white beauty standards across the world. White and lighter skin is idealised and darker complexions are vilified. India is no exception and it is evident in the myriad of skin lightening adverts.
Hunter (2011) states:
‘The merging of new technologies with old colonial ideologies has created a context where consumers can purchase ‘racial capital’ through skin beaching creams or cosmetic surgeries.’
Choma and Prusaczyk (2018) found white beauty standards predict greater skin colour dissatisfaction: reducing negative impact on WOC necessitates dismantling them entirely. Part of that is challenging white cultures dominance and white people’s unwillingness to socially assimilate in other cultures.
Choosing to not respecting cultural expectations is participating, to a degree in the perpetuation of western cultural dominance and beauty standards that has caused and is still causing so much damage today.
The question of what to wear is not so simple in another culture. It’s about reframing our perspective. As a white British person there’s a responsibility to consider the impact of racism, slavery and colonialism when we travel. To understand our perspective is shaped by white feminism, white privilege and the dominance of white beauty standards.
We must learn from history, without prioritising absolving white guilt, our own comfortability or projecting our own standards. We can consciously reframe our perspective. Learning to approach other cultures with respect as a priority not an afterthought.
It’s not my place to tell anyone what to wear. I encourage conversations about the complexities of choice. Listening to WOC’s issues whilst allowing them to shape the discourse. Considering the personal and wider implications of disrespecting cultural expectations, why it is the default for many westerners? Perhaps most importantly, making every effort to respect the culture you’re lucky enough to be experiencing.
Artwork by Maria Junia
Barrett, M and McIntosh, M. (1985) ‘Ethnocentrism and socialist feminist theory’, The Feminist Review, 20, pp 23-47.
Choma,, B and Prusaczyk, E. (2018). ‘The Effects of System Justifying Beliefs on Skin-Tone Surveillance, Skin-Color Dissatisfaction, and Skin-Bleaching Behavior.’ Psychology of Women Quarterly, 42, pp 036168431774784.
Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.
Hunter, Margaret. (2011). Buying Racial Capital: Skin-Bleaching and Cosmetic Surgery in a Globalized World. 4.
Kapoor, K. (2012) All the clothes women have been banned from wearing [online]. Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/spotlight/All-the-clothes-women-have-been-banned-from-wearing/articleshow/16623656.cms (Accessed: 13 June 2020)
Kashyap, A. (2019) Patriarchy and the politics of policing women’s clothing [online]. Available at: https://feminisminindia.com/2019/05/31/womens-clothes-and-patrirarchy/ (Accessed: 10 June 2020)
Levy, A. (2005). Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the rise of raunch culture. New York, Free press.
Lugones, M. (1987). Playfulness, “World”-Travelling, and Loving Perception. Hypatia, 2(2), 3-19.
Narayan, D 2018, Chup: breaking the silence about India’s women, Juggernaut publications, New Delhi.
Penny, L. (2011). Meat market: female flesh under capitalism. Washington, Zero Books.
Thomas, M. (2016) India’s tourism minister has some advice for female visitors: avoid skirts [online]. Available at: https://qz.com/india/768785/indias-tourism-minister-has-some-advice-for-female-visitors-avoid-skirts/ (Accessed: 13 June 2020)
Walter, N. (2010). Living dolls: the return of sexism. London, Virago.
Author: Alice McGettigan
Alice McGettigan is a UK based contributor. She’s a writer, feminist, traveler, animal lover and is currently working on her life goal of becoming a mad old witch.