In India, wearing jeans can be liberating – or deadly – for women

PHOTO: Twitter/SM_Bishnoi

Shabana Asthana, 25, was in university when she bought her first pair of jeans, but the Indian student could not wear it until she went to her college hostel.

When she finally put it on, matching it with a shawl and a loose collarless shirt known as a kurti, she felt liberated.

“In my village, jeans are viewed as Western garments that are not becoming of girls,” said Asthana, who lives in a small village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

The views of Asthana’s village elders are not isolated, with many Indian girls and women often shamed for attracting attention by wearing foreign attire in a country with a deeply patriarchal and misogynist culture.

Last month, a teenage girl was killed by her male relatives for wearing jeans during a prayer session.

The body of Neha Paswan, 17, was found hanging from a bridge that flowed through her village in Deoria, Uttar Pradesh, after her grandfather and uncle beat her with sticks.

Neha’s mother said she had picked up the trend of wearing jeans after living for a period in the city of Ludhiana.

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“When her grandparents objected to her attire, Neha retorted that jeans were made to be worn and that she would wear it,” her mother told the BBC.

Attire-shaming is among the threats that Indian girls and women face, along with the possibility of violence and death from acts by men such as dowry harassment, domestic abuse, female foeticide and acid attacks.

Communities in Uttar Pradesh, India’s biggest state with 200 million residents, have often made the news for their views on Western dressing, especially jeans.

In 2015, a Muslim village council banned girls in more than 10 villages from using mobile phones, and wearing jeans and T-shirts, in a bid to discourage them from talking to boys or appearing indecent.

“We live in villages … using mobile phones and dressing in jeans and T-shirts might be allowed in cities but it is not allowed in villages,” the president of the council was quoted as saying in a news report in 2016.

In March this year, a village body in Muzaffarnagar district barred women from wearing jeans and men from wearing shorts, saying they were part of Western culture and that “people should wear traditional Indian clothes”.

Renu Addlakha, a professor at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies in New Delhi, said unlike traditional attires such as the shalwar kameez, also known as the Punjabi suit, “jeans are figure-hugging and expose the contours of a woman’s body”.

“It’s usually worn with a short top, unlike an Indian long kurta, and reveals a woman’s shape clearly,” she said.

“In the Indian context, it’s perceived as a woman flaunting her sexuality and being a desirous object, which is looked upon by patriarchal society as threatening male domination, because women are supposed to be passive and not attract attention.”

Jeans were originally designed in the United States as workwear for labourers on farms and mines, before becoming casual fashion.

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In the 1950s, jeans were perceived as a symbol of rebellion after they were worn on-screen by Hollywood stars with reputations as “bad boys”, with schools banning the pants over their links to being anti-establishment.

In the 1960s, jeans became associated with creative self-expression and from the 1970s, they were seen as a fashion trend associated with America and sexuality, with models sporting tightfitting styles.

While jeans are casual wear in India, the element of rebellion remains attached to the garment for many women who seek to express their freedom and independence.

They often dress in a way that is acceptable to their communities, like wearing jeans with a traditional Indian Kurti and stole, and then replacing it with shorter tops as they get bolder and move to larger cities to work or study.

Prarthana Thakur, an activist who works with the Delhi-based Nirantar Resource Centre for Gender & Education, said women were gaining agency by deciding what to wear on their own terms.

“In a patriarchal system, women are required to control their own sexuality and also to control the sexuality of other males around them, by not wearing clothes that are revealing and attractive,” she said.

“When a woman wears clothes of her choice, she is challenging such a deep-rooted notion of society which considers women merely as subordinate to the male members with no agency and choice.”

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Thakur said there needed to be more conversations around “toxic masculinity, sexuality and upbringing of males in our families”.

“It has become imperative to break the silence about gender-based violence in the family, which is still considered to be a private matter of the particular family,” she said.

Deepti Mishra, a 17-year-old who lives in a small village in eastern Bihar state, said she was only allowed to wear the shalwar kameez in her village, even when she plays sports.

“My parents say that if I wear jeans, I will not get a groom,” she said. “I always envy the girls in bigger cities like Patna who have the freedom to wear sportswear or jeans and not be criticised. Why should men dictate what we wear?”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.