Year 2000: I was a rookie journalist trying to find a foothold in the entertainment beat. At that point, if someone called you and said one of the veteran actresses of Bollywood was shopping in a boutique in Kolkata and the boutique owner wouldn’t mind some photo ops, you do rush hoping you get an interview along with that. I did manage my interview but since the actress was shopping she said she would want to focus more on the sartorial senses of the young generation. I was game.
Then she came up with this clincher: “I would tell young girls never to ape the style statements shown in Hindi cinema. On the screen, heroines walk around in shorts but in real life, they should never wear that. Socially and culturally India is not ready to accept women walking around in shorts although in Hindi cinema we show that as a cakewalk.”
Year 2020: I had taken a cycle rickshaw through a thronging bazaar. The rickshaw halted at the overbridge and I walked up the steps to go to the other side. On the steps, a few teenage boys were sitting and fiddling with their mobiles, upon the bridge some beggars had made space for themselves along with a couple of couples who were standing in the January sun and watching the trains hooting by below. Then it happened. Suddenly all attention, including mine, turned to two girls. They had walked up the stairs from the other side of the bridge. Both were in shorts and were smoking cigarettes. They could have been in their 20s or maybe younger.
They were busy chatting with one another and seemed to belong to a different world. But to us it was like an alien invasion had just happened. I believe firmly that what a woman wears is her choice and she should have the complete freedom to make that choice. But standing in front of these two ladies wearing shorts, I felt a strange unease. I lauded them for being able to make that choice but they did look like absolute misfits in that ambience. I have to admit that.
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Are We Ready As A Society For Indian Women To Wear Shorts?
Thanks to the internet Indians have far more exposure to world culture than they had even a decade back and many things that weren’t accepted are acceptable today. Women are getting an education, going out to work, taking on late shifts and have proved their capabilities in a patriarchal society. They do walk around in shorts and short skirts too. But that does not mean they don’t get the stares and the cat calls.
While one part of Indian society has happily embraced the western culture and made shorts the emblem of ultimate sartorial freedom the other part of the society hasn’t moved on in such breakneck speed educationally, socially or psychologically.
That’s why two girls in shorts on an over bridge can turn all eyes but that wouldn’t definitely happen inside the walls of a nightclub or even an upmarket college or a mall. Because the people thronging these places are more exposed to western reality but not other parts of the same society.
What you wear depends on where you are going
I live in Kolkata where you wouldn’t be surprised if the girl next to you is sitting in a pair of shorts in the auto rickshaw. Reshma Singhi, an IT professional said, “I was returning from work in an auto that day and I suddenly realised every car was slowing down next to the auto I was travelling in. Or every eye was on our auto at the traffic light. Initially I could not understand what was amiss then I realised the girl sitting next to the auto driver in the front was wearing a pair of shorts. She was nonchalant so was the auto driver, who must have got used to ferrying women in shorts by now, but it was clear people around were not. I thought the whole thing was very funny because this shows how regressive people are. It’s good to see the younger generation isn’t bothered about what others are thinking.”
Women wear shorts in most metros in India. If you are jogging around Shivaji Park in Mumbai you wouldn’t give a second look at the girl wearing shorts and jogging or women in shorts doing their evening walk at Lodhi Gardens are not that savagely stared at either. In Kolkata too in the Gariahat area it’s easy to spot women doing their shopping in their shorts. But I cannot say for sure people are not ogling. They do ogle but women have learned to brush that aside.
“If you are wearing shorts in India you should keep in mind where you are going,” says Sonali Misra, a housewife. “I allow my teenage daughter to wear shorts when she is playing or chatting inside the community we live in or going to the club or some house party with us. Otherwise if she is stepping outside the community or using public transport I strictly don’t allow her to wear shorts because she would be attracting unnecessary attention towards her which is not safe.”
Abroad yes, but not in India
As a piece of garment shorts are cool. Many Indian women, even in their 40s find it comfortable to wear shorts when they are living abroad but when in India it’s a strict no-no for them. Why? “It’s really strange. I live in Dubai in an area where predominantly Indians live. But there men don’t stare and measure you up. I mean the same Indian men who would do that in India. So I feel very comfortable walking around in shorts there, something that would turn into a nightmare if I try in India,” said Zinobia Rawat, a 40-year-old media professional.
Many men in India do have the habit of staring, an allegation that they cannot easily shed off. “That’s why when I am in India I always stick to my salwar kurtas. But my teenage daughter says she feels absolutely comfortable wearing shorts in India and chides me for being too hyper about the stares. Maybe it was the times we were socialized in. When we were teenagers no girl wore shorts especially in middle class families. So the paranoia persists. Probably India has changed but I am not realizing it,” said US based Sreyashi Sen.
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What’s wrong with shorts?
Most young Indian women say they find shorts cool and a great piece of comfortable garment. Tina Sharma a student of Class 12 says, “My parents get upset if I wear shorts to tuition or to a friend’s place. They say this does not go with Indian culture and people stare. I feel men stare if I wear a pair of jeans and T-shirt too. That’s also not an Indian garment. Why should I not wear what I want to wear because of the fear that people would stare at me?”
That is the mindset that’s making young girls venture out in shorts in India with comfort and ease. Sociologist Dr Tumpa Mukherjee says, “But this a very small percentage of women living in urban areas. If we look at the bigger picture of Indian society then we would have to include both the urban and rural perspective. In modern India it is still unimaginable for women to wear shorts in the rural areas. We still live in a society with a strict patriarchal mindset. We might have changed on the outside but our inner self and attitude largely remains the same.” Dr Mukherjee adds, “If a woman goes to report a rape or molestation at the police station the first question she is asked is what was she wearing. So there you go it shows the mindset so well.”
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India is a country where there is an acute skirmish going on between the waning cultural and social values and the western ideals that have made inroads into the country. On the one hand we have the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi imposing a strict dress code of sarees and dhotis for devotees on the other hand we have the Bollywood stars flaunting their fashionable ripped denim shorts.
But a few incidents have proved how judgmental people become when they see women wearing shorts. In a 2016 incident a girl was in shorts and smoking a cigarette along with her boyfriend. The residents of that area in South Kolkata objected to her attire and behaviour and when the boyfriend tried to straighten things out he was beaten up by the local people. Some other residents intervened and ensured the girl was safe.
In August 2019 a woman slapped a girl because she was wearing shorts. This happened in broad daylight right in the middle of the road in an upmarket South Kolkata locality. And in the same year when a girl went to the apartment president to talk about a leakage in her washroom, wearing a pair of shorts, she was asked to dress up appropriately first. In Bengaluru a man stopped a couple on a bike and started yelling at her that she should follow the”Indian dress code”.
And this woman’s experience on a Delhi public bus in a pair of shorts is not harrowing but indeed gives an insight into all kinds of reactions a woman in shorts elicits.
To cut a long story “short” we can say women are “daring” to wear shorts on Indian urban streets but as a society it will take India a few more decades to accept the bare legs without the stares and the judgment.