In the late 1990s, when Kerala’s now famous policewoman Vinaya made the switch from saree to pants and shirt, she faced stiff opposition from within and without from the force of the ‘State. Years later, women’s sari and dress code are again at the center of a debate raging in the state after a teacher refused to accept a job offer as the institution insisted for her to wear a sari on campus.
Amid the controversy, a public school in Thiruvananthapuram has drawn attention for introducing a gender-neutral uniform for its students, perhaps the first example in the country.
Vinaya says such reforms should have been introduced a long time ago.
âWomen’s dresses are designed without any scientific basis,â Vinaya told Outlook. âMen and women have legs and hands, but traditionally they have been asked to wear separate dresses in the name of genetics. Women are conditioned to always be aware of how they dress. Girls cannot run. or jump right because of their dress code, “she says. Women don’t have to tolerate anything that is embarrassing to her, be it her dress or her long hair.
Vinaya adds, âThey are now introducing non-sexist dresses at school. But I did it a long time ago in the midst of strong opposition. I knew I was right and the company would get there eventually.
She remembers when she started working and had to travel frequently by train. âBy the time I reached my destination, the lower end of my saree would be dirty. Coming home from vacation or time off, there were also times when I needed to take a bath in the waiting rooms at the train station on days when I was late to show up to the office. Saree is not at all comfortable on such occasions. He would get wet in the waterlogged railroad washroom, âshe said.
It was then that she decided to try on pants and a shirt. âThere have been cases where the saris of policewomen have been removed by disbelievers while they were on duty at sites of unrest,â she said. Vinaya was determined to continue wearing pants and a shirt despite opposition. She later embodied a long struggle for a non-sexist dress code within and outside the police force.
Vinaya was perhaps the first woman from Kerala to appear on public platforms in non-sexist dresses and with cropped hair. She even organized sporting events, biking, etc., for the girls. She once dressed up as a tiger in the famous Pulikkali (Tiger Dance), a traditional folk art, which is otherwise only performed by men.
Faced with punitive measures, she fought a long legal battle that ultimately helped state police officers obtain permission to change their uniform from sari to pants and shirt. Even then, women were not allowed to tuck in their shirts. Vinaya was not ready to give up. She fought again and won the right for the police to pull in their shirts.
In the recent case of the teacher’s refusal to accept a job, the left-wing government took a stand against the college leadership, which had asked the teacher to wear a compulsory sari. Kerala Higher Education Minister R. Bindu said her department had issued a new circular reaffirming the freedom of women to wear any dresses they choose. This is the third such circular that Kerala governments are forced to issue on the issue – the first in 2008 and the second in 2014 – after non-implementation.
Kerala’s famous Sri Padmanabha Swami temple in Thiruvananthapuram has allowed faithful women to enter its premises wearing churidars since 2016. Until then, it had followed the practice of only allowing women in sari to enter the temple. . The famous Guruvayur Sree Krishna temple in Thrissur has allowed churidars since 2007.
Minister Bindu said other incidents of sari imposition were brought to her attention after reports of the latest controversy. âI am also a teacher. When I was teaching in Kerala Varma, I regularly wore churidars. Although a teacher has many responsibilities, embracing such outdated and obsolete ideas is not one of them. The choice of dress code is an entirely personal matter. No one has the right to criticize or interfere in the clothing choices of others, âthe minister said in a tweet.
At the same time, in the gender-neutral uniform experience at Valayanchirangara Lower Public Primary School in Ernakulam District, girls’ skirts were replaced. Now boys and girls wear knee-length shorts. The school introduced it for the pre-primary section in 2018 and has now expanded it to the lower primary section with more than 500 students after classes reopened following the Covid-19 pandemic.
Kerala Education Minister V. Shivan Kutti praised the move in a social media post: âWe need similar efforts to achieve the goal of gender equality in education and in other areas â.
Catholic religious writer Sister Jesme, like Vinaya, had also spoken about the agency and women’s dress code in Kerala long before the current debate. One of the most outspoken women in Kerala who spoke out against the exploitation of nuns in her autobiography, Sister Jesme said she has been confronted on many occasions when her sari falls off her waist in public.
âOnce, when I was going to give a speech at a college, to my embarrassment, the fleets of my sari fell one by one. The staff and teachers immediately took me to a room and helped me put it back properly, âshe recalls.
On a Women’s Day on March 8, when she was invited to a public speech, she appeared on stage in pants and a shirt. To a shocked audience, Sister Jesme launched a dialogue from a play: âDon’t judge me with your artificial lawâ. Now she remembers: “I just wanted to tell them it’s not a man’s dress but a human dress.”