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God’s Own Dress Code

Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala
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God’s Own Country knows exactly what and how much a woman should wear in a place of worship

HOW MUCH DOES the Almighty worry about the attire of his female devotees? That is a question only God can answer, but God’s Own Country certainly knows exactly what and how much a woman should wear in a place of worship. The famous Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram is a recent instance of this obsession. There, the dress code was once briefly relaxed. Its executive officer had allowed women to wear churidars to the temple following a High Court order, the result of a petition filed by Riya Raji, a native of Thiruvananthapuram. But almost immediately, the temple administration committee met and reversed the order. On the first day, a large number of women visited the temple in churidar, a sign of their desire for change. On the other hand, there were demonstrations in protest against the relaxation, the irony being that women led those protests too, arguing for a ‘modest attire’ like the sari.

This fixation is not restricted to Hindu temples. The Malankara Orthodox Church in Kerala has come up with a rule that bans Western attire and makes the sari compulsory for brides at marriage ceremonies. The circular issued by the church has a long list of dos and don’ts for Orthodox Syrian Christians. It insists, for example, that the gown is Western and therefore improper, whereas the sari is a part of Indian culture. The church authorities later clarified that such a restriction was only for St Peter’s and St Paul’s Church at Parumala (popularly known as Parumala Church), the community’s most prominent place of worship. “There is a tendency to wear gowns that do not cover the body properly, which is against our culture. That was the reason we have decided to bring in such a rule,” says Father Dr Johns Abraham Konat, priest trustee of the Malankara Orthodox Church. “In all other churches, brides can wear gowns.”

Restrictions on women’s wear in major temples of Kerala has been a point of discussion for a while now. The Devaswom Management Committee of Guruvayoor Srikrishna temple, one of the most popular places of worship in south India, lifted its ban on the churidar in 1997 because of a long pending demand from women, especially from northern states. Similar demands exist at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, where women have to wear either a sari or a long skirt with a blouse. In a public hearing following the High Court petition, most women asked for the churidar among other forms of attire to be allowed.

However, confusion prevails in the temple now because of contradictory orders, and women devotees continue to visit the shrine wearing churidars. “We were asked to wear a mundu (a waistcloth) being provided at the temple over the salwar. This is humiliating. Why should we wear a shabby mundu worn by many others?” asks Sreelatha S, a school teacher from Attingal, Thiruvananthapuram.

Anxiety over women’s wear is not a phenomenon confined to places of worship alone. Educational institutions too impose clothing censorship, some putting in place restrictions that go beyond mandating uniforms. A few months ago, Government Medical College at Thiruvananthapuram hit the headlines for an order banning girls from wearing jeans, leggings and ‘noisy ornaments’. The order issued by the vice principal prescribed just ‘neat and clean dresses’ for boys, but had specific limits for women, restricting them to either a sari or churidar.

For some reason, jeans and leggings always attract the ire of those who want to censor clothing. Last year, MES Women’s College in Kozhikode banned them in addition to skirts and short tops. The ban applied to the both Western wear and purdah. Fasal Gafoor, chairman of Muslim Educational Society, is a critic of purdah, but in this case, he says there is no ban on any dress, the college just wanted a ‘uniform look’.

In 2014, the iconic singer KJ Yesudas threw his fans into a tizzy by making a distasteful comment on how women should dress. He said what should be covered should be covered and women should not trouble men by wearing jeans. Soon social media was rife with photographs of his son and daughter-in- law wearing jeans, asking the singer to start his reform at home.

In yet another instance, Babu Kuzhimattom, secretary of the state-run Kerala Book Marketing Society, put up a Facebook post that his car skidded due to the distraction caused by a woman in leggings on the side of the road. He wrote that the driver could not be blamed because skin-coloured leggings could cause an erection. Such comments by public personalities only deepen the notion that women are responsible for sexual assaults against them and strengthen calls for censorship.

The reasons given for regulating women’s wear are often outrageous. Jyoti Narayanan, a feminist, says, “A dress code is insisted upon for women because they say the sight of exposed body parts is a ‘distraction’ for men. But no such reason is implied for male dress codes. In many temples, men are allowed to wear trouser pants. All these restrictions come from a fear of women’s liberty and freedom.”