A worn-out debate

What gives men the right to dictate what women wear and don’t wear?

The recent verdict of the High Court, granting bail to the assailant of the May 18 attack in Narsingdi -- the case where a woman was abused for wearing a crop top and jeans (read: Dressing “provocatively”), is all over the news and social media.

There have been various women’s groups and activists taking to the streets, demanding their rights to be out in public, wearing what they like, and there have been discussions on how our cultures and traditions are so sensitive that they so easily get affected by a mere set of clothing.

I am tired of quoting statistics on the number of women who get harassed in public transport every day, the numbers who report it, and the many more that go unreported. These facts have become just numbers, and mean nothing, especially when changes are yet to happen, policy and behaviour wise.

However, a new phenomenon has been on the rise: Men’s movements, both online and offline, particularly those taking to the streets and asking women to not dress to “seduce” them. These protests are being led by young folk, university students, and others like them.

Many questions arise in my mind, apart from the obvious fact which is that women have better things to do than to dress in order to seduce men. Also, how easy is it to seduce men, if all one needs to do is wear a top and jeans?

Second, as many have rightfully asked, what is this culture that breaks into tiny shreds of pieces each time a woman puts on a pair of jeans? Who made this culture, who protects it, and why is the onus always on women to do so?

Third, and more importantly the focus of my piece today: What gives men the right to dictate what women ought to wear and not wear?

So, I began to research, and I found an article from 2019 that talked about a fine being imposed on women in a village in India’s Andhra Pradesh if they were seen wearing nighties from 7am-7pm. Not only this, the article also goes on to say that other women, who would report this “misconduct” would also be rewarded. I was also recently bemused to learn that Victoria’s Secret, one of the biggest brands of lingerie in the world, is owned by a man called Les Wexner.

So, let me get this straight: Not only do men in our families, homes, and societies control what women wear, they also dictate what does and does not fall under “proper cultural wear,” define ideal body types and shapes, and in fact build an empire out of it? 

Virgina Vigliar writes: “It seems everyone has ownership over the woman’s body except the woman. Major decisions on women’s bodies and reproductive rights are constantly discussed by men -- and publicly. Opinions are given about rape cases by people not involved in the crime. The woman’s body is not only used as a channel for war crimes, but its ownership has been used for decades as a political tool.”

So, not only are women’s movement, mobility, and decision-making (which includes choice in clothing) controlled by men in the private zone, but publicly as well. He decides if she can be a legal guardian or not, how much property she owns or does not, whether she gets to have an abortion or not. When she fights in the court of law, he decides if she wins.

Starting from judges, (as in the recent Narsingdi case), to policies -- most of which are yet to be gender sensitive -- a woman’s body is constantly and continually controlled by men in positions of power. However, in juxtaposition, it is always up to the woman to preserve and hold on the cultures and traditions of her family, and society at large. Did she ask for it? I think it is safe to say no.

As Kamla Bhasin says, “My honour is not in my vagina. It is a patriarchal idea that my rape will defile the honour of my community. I'd like to tell everyone, why did you place your community's honour in a woman's vagina? We never did that. It is the rapist who loses his honour, we don't." 

To say that a woman’s body is political is not a simple statement -- because it is not only controlled by her husband, in-laws, and family members, but by the state. As long as she does not have the agency to control her life and her body, protests on the street asking her to dress in a certain way will not only continue to happen, but be applauded by others who benefit from it.

While we ask the legitimate questions mentioned above, we must also work with female legislators and push for gender sensitive laws; we must ask policy-makers why, even after years of signing the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1984, Bangladesh still has reservations on those acts pertaining to personal laws involving women.

Along with protests and movements, we must use systems like the Universal Periodic Review and CEDAW Shadow Reporting to hold States accountable.

It is only then that judges like the one involved in the Narsingdi case will be held responsible. As will the men on the streets asking women to not dress to seduce.  

Syeda Samara Mortada is a feminist activist working as a Coordinator in Bonhishkha, a feminist organization working to un-learn gender, and in creating a platform for youth to share their gender-based experiences.