The dress law for temples is just another tool to rein in ‘provocative’ women

As the new year dawned, Justice S Vaidyanathan’s prescribed dress code for Hindus visiting temples came into force in Tamil Nadu. These were new rules, amounting to an “apparel law”. The “ruled” attire for men visiting temples, hereafter, is a shirt with pants or upper cloth with pyjamas or a dhoti, while women are to be in a sari, half sari or a churidhar with upper cloth. For children, the law is “any fully covered dress”. The order and the concept of an order on such a matter have been difficult enough to accept. But for me, what has been an uncomfortable reality is the fact that Hindus have more or less accepted this diktat, and find it most appropriate.

Dress codes as such are not new. “Customs and traditions,” according to the 1947 Tamil Nadu Temple Entry Authorisation Act, determine entry permissions. Temples in Kerala, for instance, enforce the rule that men need to be bare-chested and women are expected to wear a mundu.

Though the rules are directed towards all devotees, it is clear from the details that the target is the modern woman. It is more than obvious that all of these conditions are intrinsically misogynistic, further establishing the sexist notion of “distracting” women. This court order is no doubt another enforcement of puritanical notions set in place by one gentleman.

Determining what’s appropriate

“Common” people have spoken up in justification of the words. The words in their statements supporting this order include “sanctity” and “modesty”, both only reiterating my understanding of the situation. All this brings to mind moving pictures from mythological Tamil films, of the pure and saintly Vishwamitra being lured by the seductress Menaka, dressed in a shimmering tightly-fitted dress highlighting her physical attributes. We often hear Pravachanakars turn these stories into metaphors, but even there the woman is the corrupter.

The fear is that unless there are rules in place, women would enter temples wearing “all kinds of odd clothes” such as shorts, mini-skirts and other Western clothes. These, it is presumed, will arouse the baser instincts in “poor, vulnerable men” and violate the sanctity of the place. Borne out of twisted traditional ideas of sexual control and violence, this is indeed an extension of the commonly held belief that women who “expose themselves” invite rape and molestation.

The 1947 Act referring to customs and traditions is against equality, which is the basic spirit of our Constitution. Almost every tradition and custom is a combination of patriarchy, caste and class. There is no doubt that the practice of men entering the sanctum without an upper cloth is at least in part linked to caste discrimination. In interior villages, even today we see lower caste men remove their loosely knotted headgear while speaking to a person of higher caste or class. If we do not question these cultural hangovers, how do we ensure equality? Therefore, to allow every temple to prepare its own set of guidelines according to its own traditions is no different from uppity clubs demanding that individuals are allowed only in shoes.

But what is “appropriate”, and how does one determine this? This is the difficult question that does not have a “right” answer. But let us step back further. What is our relationship with our bodies and sexuality? Enforced morality is borne out of our inability to embrace ourselves as sexual beings with intense desires that transcend the boundaries of socially created relationships. To avoid this emotional turbulence, we have “attired order” among other things. But the matter is not so simple, entangled in this are more complex barbed wires.

The man is seen as the uncontrollable sexual machine and by the laws of nature is corruptible. The woman exists to satisfy “his” needs and aware of his inherent weakness, a conniving enticer. When people speak of distraction in the context of the temple, they are referring to this entrapment that women are said to practice, whether by design or not being beside the point. And, therefore, clothing control is a tool to rein in the provocative woman and support the weak man.

Role of religion

Where does religion fit into all this? God is the perfect mechanism to establish this very idea and religious organisations across cultures play that role perfectly. Therefore, it is no surprise that we want to remove any idea of sexuality from the precincts of the temple, even though sculpted voluptuous women stare at us at every turn. Women being titillated by the carved broad shouldered, muscled dvarapalakas are of course of no consequence.

Ritual practices within the temple celebrate sex, but we should remember that sexual desire among the gods is pure while that which happens between homosapiens is neech. The tragedy is that this canvas is a creation of the powerful male (not gender-specific) who has altered the images at different times to suit his own convenience.

The larger issue is therefore far removed from the temple itself. What we have failed to create is a society where we respect our bodies and build relationships on trust, an environment where sexual desire is not suppressed and placed on the lowest step of nature, but absorbed into the understanding of each other irrespective of gender. Instead, we have made the woman the physically weak sexual object who provides pleasure to the insatiable man. And religion is one mechanism through which we manipulate her. I do not see any sanctity in this construction.

It is the same faith that we need in human interactions that should guide our relationship with god, and this bond will naturally determine how we present ourselves to him or her – not what men believe is appropriate or comfortable in their eyes. We stand before Rama, Kamakshi or Siva in a rapture that is as much about our own physical self, as it is about our belief. We admire Nataraja for the exquisite sexual imagery that human creativity bestowed upon him and surrender to the cosmic strength he gives us. This all-encompassing experience is the temple.

Varying degrees

Such controls are not confined to Hinduism. Islam and Christianity have their own customs and practices with regard to personal attire. I was once given a harsh shelling by a woman from the Islamic faith about the hijab. She convincingly argued that in every society, it is the man who determines the amount of skin that a woman can reveal, and therefore the hijab gives her the ability to take control of her body and deprive man of his control and consequently pleasure.

But what seems like a strong feminist statement ignores the fact the enforcement of the hijab is borne out of misogyny. There are enough cases of women being forced to wear the hijab by their families. Free will itself is not at all that liberated, and it high time we understand this nuance. And here I must say this: we the “majority Hindus” in this country constantly speak about the hijab as an oppressive tool, forgetting that Hinduism forces similar conditionalities on women in the form of the ghunghat, metti, and mangal sutra. There is also the unquestioningly accepted practice that menstruating women should not enter the temple. These are all abusive in nature, it is only the degrees that vary.

While the Acharyas, Mullahs, and other priests and judges are busy demanding sexual propriety, they ignore the class discriminations that choice of attire brings forth. No one seems to care that people flaunt the most expensive and branded clothes at the temple and create unfair comparison, jealousy, sadness and discrimination. The sight of legs affects us much more.

Originally written for Scroll.in

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