Over the last few months, the discussion over what women wear appears to have taken centrestage.
First, there was the highly publicised incident in Narsingdi railway station where a young woman was harassed and assaulted by a group of people, led by an elderly woman, for apparently wearing 'Western clothes'. Then came the incident of another woman harassed by a police officer for wearing a teep.
'Western' clothing is a problem. Traditional accessories are a problem. Almost any kind of clothing appears to be offending one group of people or another. One wonders what exactly it is that we are supposed to wear.
This time around, the situation escalated to a whole new level when the law decided to weigh in on what constitutes 'decent' clothing.
For the uninitiated, the High Court was making a precarious point. It said that it did not understand why there had been so much outrage and outcry over the harassment of a young woman for her clothes at Narsingdi Railway Station on 18 May this year. The court implied the young woman's clothes did not reflect cultural values. The court made the comments during a bail hearing for Sheela, the woman who was accused of initiating the attack on the young woman and her friends at the station.
Following the 17 August High Court comment, small groups of students appeared at university campuses demonstrating in support of the HC's comments (that women should, in fact, dress modestly).
To start with, the HC comment is a clear cause for concern in itself. It legitimises what many citizens already think and, in some cases, the actions they take, to ensure that women, in fact, dress 'modestly'.
Secondly, the synchronised demonstrations at Dhaka University, Jahangirnagar University, Jagannath University, and Islamic University on 25 August, followed by similar demonstrations at North South University in the following days, are a mystery in itself.
Media reports claim university authorities have formed probe committees to investigate these demonstrations. Apparently, several of the students who took part in the demonstrations do belong to the universities and have affiliations either to the ruling party's student wing or to Tablighi-Jamaat supporters.
While these demonstrations seem to have withered in number (and also led to counter-student demonstrations which support women's right to choose their clothes), they channelled a new energy across social media platforms.
Facebook posts and groups are livid. From my personal peruse in the last hour of the comment sections under several Facebook posts of pictures of the said demonstrations, two things are very clear.
1) Those who are offended and adversely affected by a woman's choice of clothing in the public space are not limited to women like Narsingdi's Sheela or the Protection Division of Dhaka Metropolitan Police's Nazmul Tareq or the High Court. There are many among the youth.
2) Those who are in support of 'women should dress modestly' hugely outnumber, on social media, those who are against this precarious notion.
The root of the problem appears to be that many people believe a woman's choice of clothing has the power to disfigure our roots and cultural values. (Speaking of culture, such views are indeed ironic, because if one was to dig an inch deeper into history, one can come across how sarees with blouses that we see today are a byproduct of the British colonial rule when the emperors deemed it necessary for the women in the subcontinent to dress more modestly and add a blouse garment to their sarees.)
Step into the 21st century
On 29 August, Education Minister Dr Dipu Moni commented on the current affair at a conference and said, "The world is now moving forward, we need to talk about robotics science, we will talk about artificial intelligence. Now is not the time to talk about the length of women's dresses. Nor can there be any debate about whether there is a teep on the forehead or not."
Finally someone with authority has taken a firm stance. For far too long we have allowed these ridiculous, and at times offensive and dangerous, discussions about what women wear to go on, fueled not just by people in general, but also people in positions of authority.
Discussions about what other people are wearing are ridiculous and offensive because in the end, it is the business of the person wearing it. People have different ideas of what constitutes decency in their own eyes, just like they have different ideas of what constitutes beautiful or stylish in their eyes. In fact, look carefully at comments of people who are on the same side – those demanding women wear 'modest' clothes – and you will see how their definition of what they think is modest differs.
What one wears is an issue that is resolved at the level of the personal. We have elevated a personal decision to the level of the public discussion. At the public level, what we should be discussing – as the minister rightly pointed out – is how do we prepare for the fourth industrial revolution, how we move forward in development, and how we bring more men and women into economic activity.
Instead of what women wear we should be talking about what women are learning in schools, colleges and universities. Study and after study have pointed out how the bigger the presence of women in a workforce, the more developed a country is. In fact, even our own economic and social development success stories have been driven in large part by women, when you consider the outsized role women have played as RMG workers or microcredit borrowers. The RMG sector, after all, accounts for approximately 83% of foreign currency earnings and 11-12% of the country's GDP.
A 2017 study found that when women can develop their labour market potential fully, the macroeconomic gains of an economy increases significantly. It also cited estimations that the GDP of several countries could be increased (in the United States by 5%, in Japan by 9%, in the United Arab Emirates by 12%, and in Egypt by 34%) by raising the female labour force participation rate to each of these countries' male labour force participation levels.
What I wear
My personal choice in what I wear every morning before stepping out depends on where I will be going and the mode of transport. A 9 pm local bus ride feels safer in a kamiz with an orna than in 'western' clothes. Many women in the city can relate.
We are conditioned to think this way because of the violent, pervasive psyche of those around us in public spaces. So spare all of us this repeated, endless lecture on heritage, religion and what have you; instead, correct this psyche first then we can table history lessons.
Modern Dhaka may seem happy to disallow an elderly man in a traditional lungi to purchase movie tickets in the city but fail to understand the notion of women's freedom of choice that skews towards "non-traditional/cultural" clothes.
We can all do ourselves a huge favour and address our deep-rooted identity issues in constructive ways that can reach the masses. For a start, let's begin with having educational institutions and those in positions of power and influence who support basic women's rights. And end this attack on women everywhere in the country because of her "wrong" choice in clothing.
As we face future challenges, pay attention to the need for creating a safe, harassment-free work environment and public space for women; so that women's progress is facilitated (and in effect, a country's economic development is nurtured) rather than hinder it with a precarious obsession with what women choose to wear.
To reiterate the education minister's comment, it is the 21st century, the time is now for discourses on "robotics science and artificial intelligence rather than the length of a woman's dress." If we continue in this vein, while other countries move ahead with super-intelligent robots, we will be left debating the length of a robot's clothing.