Fashion of the Fascists
The original fascists were the long lost cousins of the Talibans. Nowadays, both of them have found some imaginary yet close relatives in Manipur and over the years, the Benito Mussolinis and Mohammed Omars of the province have been working overtime to establish the proof of relationship too. However, the connection is hardly hardcore politics as we might believe so, but rather emphasized on gender supremacy—which in most cases, edges towards sheer absurdity.
As a male observer, I should admit that a humanistic rationale has shaped these views on their sense of, or rather insecurity for, fashion. The ideals of equality, justice and rights have informed the deliberations.
So what is the fashion of the fascists? Let’s start with what it is not. The fashion of the fascists is not what its fanatic members wear or eat. However, it is the style or manner that they impose on others. It is a set of clothes that has been stitched for eternity. This takes Coco Chanel’s aphorism of ‘fashion fades, style remains’ to a whole new level.
The irony cannot be missed in the last Women’s Day celebration in Imphal. Around a dozen of panelists elaborated on the role of women in a society. They explained the significance of observing such a day. So far so good, then, but out of the dozen experts, only one of them was a woman. This is offensive as much as the moral police’s views of objectionable dresses. If we consider the social mores and ethos, there is no reason to bat an eyelid though; and lesser unsurprising it is if we take into account the conservative and patriarchal nature of our traditional society.
Elsewhere in the world, many opinion makers—regardless of the same number of their antagonists—believe that such a dress imposition on women is for their safety. No matter how unconvincing they sound, this deduction comes from an infantile observation that skimpy, revealing and ‘sexually arousing’ clothes invite the criminal-minded buffoons to commit a crime; though these same observers have no answer why so many fully clothed, little girls, as young as two–three years old, plus the female septuagenarians and octogenarians are raped, molested and killed day in and day out. Neither have they got the answer why Islamic countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, with their well-covered women, top the list in the most unsafe place for women in the world.
A regressive mentality only victimise the injured party as ‘logical’ reason takes the backseat. Closer in my hometown, the crime-angle is somehow blunted; maybe because there is no dearth of explanations on why the fashion of the fascists is the ultimate style. To put it bluntly, foreign clothes and dresses—which include western women’s garments and those from mainland India—pollute the native traditions and cultures. A few of us have apparently held the contract to maintain what is appropriate and what is not in our public life. It only reeks of men’s urge to control women’s sexuality.
People call them moral police but in the latter’s hearts, they are the self-righteous fascists. Retrogressive fascists and Master Mussolini’s sincere disciples; their contention is that the women must put themselves out of sight if they want to stay alive, and better if they confine themselves within the four walls of their homes. It has, however, ignored the fact that in more than half of the total rape cases, the rapists are family members or close relatives.
Sex and Statistics
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), under the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, released the Incidence of IPC Crimes under Sexual Offences during 2014. From the records sent by the State Crime Records Bureaux (SCRBx) from the District Crime Records Bureaux (DCRBx), it mentioned there were 36,735 reported rape cases, 4,234 attempts to rape, 82,235 cases of assaults on women with intent to outrage their modesty, 9,735 cases of insult to the modesty of women cases and a total of 132,939 sexual-offence cases under the Indian Penal Code.
A little more than a decade ago, when we were in schools, the girls used to wear skirts. However, when college started a few years later, all the female students were and have been imposed to wear the ‘phanek’ sarong, especially for those girls in secondary and higher secondary classes. It was no different when I started going to college. Nobody would even dare question the diktat in a place where, to use a local expression, cow dung is more expensive than a human life.
If we go by the phanek story, do this math: Manipur recorded one case of cyber crime in 2013 and 13 in 2014 as recorded in the NCRB database. A couple of days ago (last week December 2015) in Kwakiethel, a man was shot in the leg for cybercrime. Nobody knows how many cases go unreported. Incidentally all of these cybercrime cases are related to sex, obscenity, harassment and blackmail with none of them involving fraud, cyberterrorism or cyberwarfare, like it is in other parts of the world. To summarise, the moral police in the valley should as well block the Internet to control the crime against women but not before asking the girls to wear multiple layers of phanek with specific designs and lengths.
A Part of the Arabian Tale
We live in a place where, we believe, the women are comparatively better off. Everybody would parrot that there is no dowry system, that they occupy a high position in the society and that they play an indispensable role in socio-economic and political affairs. However, it will be sheer conformity to the patriarchal mindset if we consider these views as the whole truth. Briefly, we live in a deeply conservative society where keeping up a tradition—read as the sole role of the women to wear culturally meaningful dresses, their essential responsibilities of looking after a household and performing other womanly duties—is as important as the daily plates of rice.
Our case can be considered as mild as compared to a few Arab countries which have made headlines in media around the world with the most ridiculous laws on subjugating their women. In one of its reports, the Amnesty International noted:
...In Saudi Arabia…a woman’s guardian (mahram) is expected to ensure that she follows the dress code. The religious police—the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (al-Mutawa’een)—ensure compliance with strict codes of Islamic conduct, including dress codes. They do this by verbally reprimanding women or their guardians, sometimes whipping them on the spot or arresting and detaining them, for perceived infractions such as not covering their faces or showing legs, arms, ankles and hair.
Source Women’s right to choose their dress, free of coercion (A statement submitted by Amnesty International to the 55th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, New York, 22 Feb–4 Mar 2011 https://www.amnesty.ch/de/themen/frauenrechte/tradition-religion-und-frauenrechte/kleidervorschriften/das-recht-auf-selbstgewaehlte-kleidung)
As the Talibans’s successors, the ISIS and a couple of others have been dictating to ‘control’ the garment and movement of the girls and women. However, it is not a matter of how mild or harsh a condition is. Any kind of restriction, as in clothes, does not affect only the choice of dress but also the entire personalities, the thoughts and emotions of the individuals. No wonder why we have the phenomenon of fear psychosis prevailing in the region. When external factors such as the rampant political conflicts, social unrests and overall decadence are the naked truth, there is a thin line between reality and abnormality. In such a condition, the mess is predictable but we cannot go on like this.
The least we can do is to oppose the strict and discriminatory rules. Here, the gender does not even matter but a consciousness of our liberties and rights. We might be living in an Indian military democracy still that does not mean it is our destiny.
The Naked Truth
In another situation, where there are dress codes for students and professionals, it is relatively tolerable not considering the funny rationale but people, of the moral-police kind, cross the line in day-to-day life when their self-righteousness reaches a peak. That’s the main issue. Most of the time, this happens to be a male or a group of ani-males with the help of some females, preaching about what women should wear—all in the name of tradition, culture and identity. Yet, there is no proof or study that such a moral high-ground advocacy has ever helped the tradition, culture and identity. All along, it has been more of an estimation or emotion that has been shaping the public opinion too. I admit mine is also just a view that might sink in the deluge but that’s not the point.
Freedom is far above the liberty to be indecent and untidy. In fact, personally, I detest ‘kurta-pyjama’ and have had worn ‘khudei-naamei’ to my friends’ weddings, but I will not impose it on anybody nor I will preach how poor Burmese ass you will still look like even if you start wearing ‘sherwani’ in addition to the ‘zamakilini kurta-pyjama’ that has been quite a trend these days. Apparently a sartorial habit hardly changes your ‘face’. The naked truth is: You wear what you want and you know the best what you want to wear and you know what the best is that you can wear. So am I. Period.
Over the last couple of decades, in American cities, various school authorities are mulling over introducing school uniforms as a means of instilling discipline among the children. Maybe they should consider the Indian scenario, where school uniforms are not only common but also the only constant thing but that does not deter the fact that the crime rate in school has been increasing in this part of the world. Like elsewhere, there are sex scandals, murders, shootings, stabbings and more mindless violence. At the end of the day, we live in a relative world, where there is nothing absolute.
Dress codes and such restrictions only work in close-knit and controlled groups but not anywhere else. This also boils down to constant preaching by the male folks on browbeating what the other sex must wear or not, of which an emergency would reach its saturation point when individuals rather than as a group become a victim.
Resistance and Shits
In his 2013 book, ‘Dress, Law and Naked Truth: A Cultural Study of Fashion and Form’, Gary Watt, a Professor of Law at the University of Warwick, UK wrote: ‘Dress always represents order and control. When we choose to dress ourselves publicly in a particular way, we are exercising a form of government. We are taking control of our little state....Even body modification through anorexia, though once attributed to excessive desire to conform to a social ideal of body type, is much better understood as a way of constituting a domain of private government in which the individual exercises “resistance to social norms”. We have seen that the law presents the face of civil disorder. Confronted with that face, the individual has three choices in cases of conflict: to conform, to contest or to compromise.’
I’m uncertain how much this representation and freedom of choices will hold true in our conservative society that believes in community living. It is even more confusing if we consider that the ‘phanek’ was imposed as a school uniform in early 2000s after an order by a rebel organisation that threatened to punish by death to anyone who defies it. In the land of bombs and guns, we cannot miss the humour when it was further announced a decade after the imposition that it should not be worn above the knee. Traditionally it is a waist-to-ankle cloth, but no matter where we are, the school kids are always rebellious by nature. The only difference is that they do not get death threat for not wearing their school uniform.
I have no hard on for the Muslims but any comparison takes back to them. Take the case of the 2002 inferno in Mecca, where 15 school girls were burnt to death. Their fault: they had no head scarves and the moral lords did not allow them to leave the burning school building without a head covering. Saudi Arabia has some of the most medieval restrictions on dress and customs for the women. If this is the example our moral masters are trying to copy, we have nothing but to defy it.
From Attire to Fervour
Globalisation has put a grave threat to the very existence of minorities and indigenous groups around the globe but that should not compel us to become fascists. As a justification, women still adhere to traditional dresses; it is the men who are imitating others’ cultures which at times are servile and sycophantic in nature. Take the case of ‘pheijom’, popularly known as dhoti in other parts of India. It stinks of the ‘ancient’ Bengali supremacy and shitty ends of the Bhakti Movement, when the Hindu faith was imposed as a state religion around 18th century. Alternatively, consider the Manipuri politicians in white kurtas. In other parts of the world, dress makes a political statement; ours make a statement on dependence and poverty of ideas. Whatever they lack in political commitment has been made up in their subservience.
The prevailing condition is a fertile ground for revivalism and unsurprisingly, many historico-cultural groups have mushroomed, especially in and around the Imphal valley. The development is an offshoot from articulations on political aspirations and cultural revolution; however, to me, revivalism is unnatural on many levels.
One, the supposedly original customs and rituals were natural products of a civilisation. It will be counterproductive to reinforce it. Two, to put it bluntly, time moves forward. It never moves backward—leave the science things about time travel and relativity for now. However, revivalism necessitates an unavoidable move to the past, which incidentally owing to its failings had been reduced to cinders, in the flames of historical events. Three, it is closely related to religion, in which the artificial creation of gods is a primary activity. Four, it has an indispensable connection with fundamentalism and right-wing politics with its followers ambiguous about the concept of simple right and far-right ideologies. Major proponents of this tribe include, amongst others, the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party, supremacists, nationalists, traditionalists, Nazis and fascists. Five, revivalism is based on our memory of collective pasts. Any historian would explain that our memory is different from reality. Besides, it is as selective as it is prejudiced.
Again this call for cultural revivalism especially in the Manipur valley is oblivious of the gender perspective. One motormouth goes to the extent of saying that the women have the sole role of preserving the culture and tradition. To conclude, fascists have nothing to do with fashion but the politics, to say the obvious, of fascism.