A tug to the left to smooth a crease, a tuck-in for stray hair and clanking of keys in the key hole is how most women around the world leave their apartments for work each day. But for Indian women, there is an additional step, the step where they pull out an all-purpose neck scarf or a dupatta.
A dupatta is traditionally worn with a salwar kameez. However, for the modern Indian woman, it is accompanied with garments beyond the humble salwar kameez. If you observe a busy street during office hours, you are sure to see women in jeans and tees with dupattas or scarves around their neck.
The scarf or dupatta should not be mistaken for a utilitarian purpose, for it is wrapped around a neck neither for avoiding tanning nor for making a style statement, the bigger reason for its usage being a security net expected to wards off lustrous glances from men in buses, train and autos.
Aishwarya was waiting in a crowd of fifty at the Chennai Central Railway station for her train when she noticed a man holding his smart phone perpendicular to his face, his camera lens pointed at Aishwarya. She felt oddly displayed. It was only a little later when the man kept angling his phone at her, did she realize that she was being publicly photographed. A few quick steps, she approached an idling policeman, pointing to the man in the crowd. She placed her allegations before him and the man in uniform steely replied, “What else were you expecting? You aren’t even carrying a dupatta.”
For 26-years-old, Aishawarya, a software engineer, her refusal to carry a dupatta was treated as an invitation for promiscuous glances from men. Dupattas are essentially worn to not let the world see your cleavage or the shape of your bosom.
Ask any club hopping adult in their twenties, no matter how revealing or non-revealing her dress may be she always has a dupatta, shawl or scarf folded in her handbag for times when she has to return home alone.
The dupatta is slowly evolving as a precautionary measure much like birth control. It is a means of being safe from your side. It is the fear of being called out publicly for not carrying a dupatta that is forcing women to wear one just to avoid the harassment.
Aishwarya was waiting in a crowded room to be photographed for the newly launched government identity proof, Aadhar card. It had been a long week. She had to take time off work in Chennai to travel to her home town in Coimbatore for the registration. When she finally sat down on the stool before the camera, the person designated to push the shutter button looked hesitant. “Are you sure you don’t want to go back home and change your clothes for the photo? May be put a dupatta? You will not be able to change your picture for the next 6 years.” As all eyes in the room averted to her, Aishwarya coldly replied, “No”.
Advising women to wear a dupatta in the garb of warning is a form of moral policing common in every corner of India. Your class, education and job profile doesn’t denounce you from this form of moral policing.
If you are used to travelling in public transport as a female in India, you are sure to come across middle-aged aunties who with their miraculous power of eye-ball gesturing will let you know if your bra strap is peeping or if your dupatta has slid to your neckline baring the shape of your breasts. Even if you intend to show off your bra strap, it is always easier to pull up the sleeves of your off-shoulder top than to invite repulsive glances for polluting the great Indian culture.
The dupatta for an Indian woman can never be emphasized enough.