The ripped jeans controversy and what it says about Indian society

The ripped jeans controversy and what it says about Indian society

Abhijit Kothiwale is an IT sales consultant working for a large Indian multinational based out of London. He spent his education and early working years in India and after having lived in other parts of the globe, like the US and Singapore, has made his home in the UK for the last 11 years with his wife and two children. His passion is reading, travelling, history and observing people and events.

In this new London Desi column, he will give his perspective on topics of interest to the Indian diaspora. Here, as a London-based desi, he reflects on a recent backlash following an Indian state minister’s remarks about women wearing ripped jeans and how it connects with societal values.

“I had a woman with two children sitting next to me on a flight wearing ripped jeans. She runs an NGO and solves peoples’ problems. I am just wondering how a woman, dressed this way, can be a role model for her kids or the society and what kind of example is she setting.”

The newly minted Chief Minister of the Indian state of Uttarakhand, Tirath Singh Rawat, recently uttered remarks to this effect at an event. This uncalled-for comment caused a huge furore in India and abroad for its misogynistic connotation and quite justifiably, a chief minister making such sweeping generalisations and judgments on a woman’s character based on what she wears is not fit for the modern age.

Underlying conflicts

The Chief Minister did have to retract the statement and the matter will blow over eventually. However, in the context of this controversy, I see an interesting underlying conflict in the Indian society as it changes rapidly due to economic progress, exposure to the world, widespread education and the empowerment of women. A part of the society is already in the modern age; lock in step with the West in not just clothes but also in attitudes. There is another part, which is stuck, or trying to hold on to traditions and an established way of life.

A lot of this reflects in the way women’s clothing and the debates around it have evolved over the last few decades. I talk about women’s clothes because, in my observation, how my father dressed is not very different from the way I or my nephews in India dress. Nothing to talk about there. It is not the same for women and this is what I will describe based on my observations and then come back to the debate over ripped jeans.

Saree vs jeans

I grew up in India as a school kid in the 1980s, a college boy and then began work in the 1990s, spent years working in the 2000s before migrating to the UK in 2009. Since then, I keep going back to India, especially to the Metros, regularly continuing my observations, as well as having a view into the series and movies from India on OTT and TV platforms. What follow might be empirical observations but are based on what one has seen.

When we were children, every grown up woman we knew wore a saree. Younger women wore what they call salwar-kameez or Punjabi dress, but when they got married, switched to sarees. Post the economic liberalisation of 1992 and the satellite TV era, combined with growing economic opportunities, the outlook of women changed in the cities as most of the younger women switched to the Punjabi dresses during that decade while a set of girls started wearing jeans. During my college days in the early 90s, a girl wearing jeans was news. By the end of that decade, many were wearing jeans in colleges.

Lived reality

In the entertainment world, I clearly remember controversies around a bit of skin show in movies in the early 90s. One song, which generated a lot of heat, was ‘Sexy, sexy, sexy, mujhe log bole’ (People call me sexy), acted on by Karishma Kapoor. The controversy made them change the words to “Baby, baby, baby, mujhe log bole” (People call me baby).

Yet, by the end of that decade and through the decade of the 2000s, we experienced a normalisation of kissing, short skirts, affairs, adult themes and a general laissez faire attitude to sexuality in movies. Compounding this phenomenon were shows like ‘Splitsvilla’, ‘MTV Roadies’ and even ‘Big Boss where girls were openly abusing, wearing skimpy clothes, being very free and bold. I remember a show where girls were auditioning for an “item girl” opportunity and the judges were commenting on their ‘oomph’ and seductive abilities as they slithered on a pole or made love to a chair. All this with their parents looking on approvingly from the audience.

We now have hundreds of Instagram influencers who seem to also be making money from endorsements by just posting pictures in various outfits, many in bold avatars. As this section of the populace surges forward in prosperity, freedom and lack of bounds is their lived reality.

Target audience

On the other hand, there are the villages and small towns where we hear of women being restricted to their homes, their dressing frowned upon or careers curtailed, though this might be changing too. What this part of the population might be living, can perhaps be judged from the massive popularity of the “saas-bahu” (mother-in-law, daughter-in-law conflict) serials made into an industry by the producer Ekta Kapoor. These series have women scheming and plotting in their homes and offices, decked up in sarees and jewellery, fighting over home matters and their men. The target audience for these series is the homemakers in many a family in the country.

I was watching this very popular serial from the 2008-2013 era called ‘Pavitra Rishta’, which is based in Mumbai. It displayed modern, educated girls who go out and work. However, the moment they got married, they wore sarees, jewellery (which went from dazzling to plain and back based on how their fortunes turned) and long mangalsutras. This was quite surprising because in metros, even women of my mother’s age had started wearing Punjabi dresses towards the end of the 2000s decade. This indicated that there is a large population out there that is still rooted around the notion of “decency” centred on how a women’s dresses.

Change and churn

On social media, we have come to observe two distinct camps where one is opposing the Indian minister’s statement on ripped jeans while the other is supporting it whole-heartedly.

I am not a big fan of ripped jeans as it seems to be a waste of good cloth but quite supportive of people wearing what they are comfortable in. However, beyond the regular tribal nature of this debate based on the political and ideological proclivities of those taking part in this debate, what I observe is the tensions between the two forces shaping up as India progresses and the society evolves – the forces of change and churn on one side and the forces of standing firm on the other.

Which side wins will be an interesting development to watch unfold over time.

by Abhijit Kothiwale

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