Women’s lives are governed by dress-codes but in the Indian Army, wives are obligated to dress in sarees for various events. Many people argue that this affinity for aestheticism shouldn’t be a big deal, but what if it’s not just an aesthetic choice? What if it’s not a choice at all? In this piece we discuss how forcing a woman to dress “beautifully” devalues us, and how the army dabbles in this casual oppression.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
“It’s just a saree,” she said to me, “Why do you have so much of a problem with wearing it?”
I mean, she had a point, right? Our social lives are governed by dress-codes. No matter where you work, whether it is a high-strung corporate office or a “cool” financially-troubled community-workspace rental company, there are some guidelines that exist to govern how you can dress. However unlike those organisations whose guidelines extend only to their employees, the army seeks to control not just its employees but their families as well. The army does not employ the wives of the people who work there, and therein lies my problem with it. It is customary in India to tell women who are newly married that they are about to begin a “new life” but when a woman marries a man in the army, they are immediately told they are marrying an organisation, and its traditions as well. I am awfully fond of my human-husband, but my organisation-husband and I, are definitely in a dysfunctional and abusive relationship.
For me, the abuse began, shortly after I married my partner when one of his bosses invited us home to welcome us “into the family”. During this evening, his wife, who knew well-enough that I am an atheist (and definitely not Hindu before then either) and that I we had had a non-religious marital union solemnised only by a judge and no fires whatsoever, presented me with a red saree, sindoor and some red bangles. While I accepted her present due to uncharacteristic politeness, I also told her that giving me (or anyone) something that doesn’t align with their religious affiliation might not be very sensitive, and she said to me a phrase that I would hear repeatedly over the years,
“But this is our tradition,” she said, “You’re an army wife now, you will learn these things.”
Learn religious insensitivity? I think not. Regardless, I let that incident go, at least insofar as I didn’t base my entire opinion on the social structure of the army on that incident. I mean, it was only a gift, it was only a saree. The issues really began when I didn’t wear a saree to an event where I was supposed to, I wore trousers and a coat because I came from work and also because that is what I own in terms of clothing. I’ve always said that it’s perfectly fine for institutions to have traditions, traditions can be a wonderful and positive thing, but it’s how institutions behave when some doesn’t follow their traditions that determines where they really stand. The army stands at complete intolerance. When I didn’t wear the saree, the backlash was immediate and severe. It didn’t impact me or force me to change my behaviour, because you develop an extremely thick skin when you’re a liberal journalist working field in India, but it was directed at me for refusing to conform, and that matters.
It matters because the saree is not just an article of clothing when it comes to the army. As an article of clothing, sarees are great. Sarees are a method of indoctrination in the army though. You wear one so that the people around you can identify you as “army wife”, it’s akin to putting on a uniform. That would be fine if I worked for the army and maybe even if the determination of my status as “army wife” didn’t govern the treatment meted out to me socially, but it does. People in the army treat army wives like airheaded objects of beauty. Women are expected to sacrifice their time to the goal of teaching other equally unhappy women to make jewellery out of vegetables and parade around making presentations on panchtatv that could be summarised in a 60-second YouTube clip (prospectively titled: Stuff no one really needs to know). Women are expected to mingle socially only with each other and any conversation we may have with the “officers” has them politely nodding while trying to guide us to the other nearest saree-clad creature. I’ve had men explain my job to me. I’ve had them tell me what my interests. I’ve had them explain that I love sarees, I just hate myself and that is why I resist them.
On the other hand when I do discuss things that I find fun with “officers” over a smoke or a drink, they think it’s okay to hit on me and it must mean that I am “open for business” to all men because well, I deign to behave like I have as many social privileges as they do. There’s only two categories for women here: household diva and complete whore, and in both categories we’re expected to dress in the same article of clothing. It epitomizes the stereotype we are expected to embody (and I don’t actually know a single woman who really does fit the stereotype). I know what happens here. I’ve read this story before. You reduce a woman to aesthetic value and an article of clothing. You start seeing her as a chopper of vegetables and an object of beauty. You treat her like she doesn’t, or even couldn’t possibly, have knowledge or opinions. Let alone a “real” job. You tell her she cares about clothing and eventually she figures if she must find value in herself she must play your game to utter perfection. So she stops tying sarees on yoga pants and buys heels to replace her favourite sneakers. She starts talking about those sarees with other women. She cares about them. You tell her she has the power to tell other, younger women how to dress and check them if they don’t. You “elevate” her in the shackled ranks you created for her. Then you tell her that all women care about is sarees and shopping, even though you started the cycle that oppressed her into caring. You can imagine, and I can prove, that these people treat their female colleagues exactly as you would expect of them. Their idea of women is colourful creatures wrapped in 5-meters of silk that only talk to each other. As far as they are concerned, the mystery of womanhood continues.
Yet there are people who ask me: It’s only a saree, why can’t you just wear it? How does it really hurt you? Can’t you just do it for your husband? It’s only a few hours a month? What is the big deal?
And to these people, I’d like to offer some answers.
It’s not only a saree, just like it’s not just sindoor and it’s not just a chooda, it means something, and I don’t like what it means. I’m not going to pretend to like it. It hurts me because I have to buy them and I don’t want to spend money I work to earn on fabrics that only stress me, I should not be obligated to do that. You don’t know my financial situation, maybe I am poor, maybe I have a gambling problem, maybe I can’t stop buying every hot-sauce I see, and maybe I have the right to spend my money exactly as I fucking please. It hurts me because I am fucking uncomfortable and I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be uncomfortable for a single second when no law in our country dictates that I should have to be and if it did, I would be in jail for fighting it. I also cannot do it for my husband. If that means to you that I don’t understand marriage or love, lol, but also that’s your problem. I deliberately abstained from putting myself in a marriage where my partner would even think to crush a fundamental part of my nature. He doesn’t tell me what to wear, I don’t tell him how to live, we don’t casually hate each other, and we don’t seek to control one another. That is not a healthy relationship, so maybe you should wonder why you would even ask that question. If my husband’s career depends on what I wear, there’s something wrong with this profession, not me. Also, a few hours a month add up. Even on a single day when I’ve spent half the day working, the other half in college, the rest of it writing, cooking, cleaning (and no, I don’t do it alone, but even half the work is work), it’s too much of an imposition on my time and comfort. If that makes me difficult, good, it’s about time women were difficult.
And finally: What is the big deal?
Well, my belief system. That’s the big deal to me. It’s not just a hobby this “women’s rights” thing. It’s not about candle-selfies at India Gate. If Gandhi had taken up freedom as a hobby, we’d still be sticking out our pinkies while sipping tea. I actively live to resist symbols of oppression. You can’t just expect me to take up a part-time cause. I can’t just be an advocate for women’s equality on weekdays and take the weekends off to dabble in casual oppression. That’s my tradition, and if your tradition was willing to accept someone like me, we wouldn’t have had a problem. Heck, I might have willingly put on a saree. But no, you decided that you had to devalue women through aesthetic responsibility, and so, fuck you very much. I’m not here for it and it is a big deal. It’s not just a saree. It’s a silk prision. I don’t do prison. Well, not yet, anyway.