Kept in her place

A rash of stupid remarks from officials about clothes and rape reveal why Indian women are struggling to advance

“I am against women wearing obscene clothes. With such clothes, they tempt men and that’s why they [women] get raped.”

It is bad enough that Indian men – not the most appealing of god’s creatures – in positions of power occasionally make public, sexist statements that demean working women and female students. But when a declaration like that comes from a woman like KK Seethamma, head of a committee set up by Bangalore University to fight sexual harassment, you have to wonder about the kind of thoughts coursing through the mind of emerging India.

Seethamma, in an interview on January 3, said women needed a dress code “for their own good”. The independence of women, she said, had nothing to do with wearing modern clothes. What, according to Seethamma, might keep women safe from rapists and sundry low life? “Only a sari,” she declared, “with long-sleeved blouses invokes respect for women; nothing else.”

Seethamma’s remarks represent the nadir of modern Indian thought and are the latest in a series of offensive, unthinking and plain stupid comments by public officials who, in a right-thinking country, should have been forced out of office. Instead, many Indians, especially men – probably the majority – likely agree with them.

The latest round of absurd comments began in late December when a reporter in Hyderabad asked Andhra Pradesh director general of police V. Dinesh Reddy why the police had failed to stem the rising graph of rape (more than three a day in 2011) and murder. This is what the learned Reddy had to say: “When you are taking (sic) food that gives good josh, [my best translation: playful energy], as time goes by you tend to be more naughty… rapes and all cannot be controlled by the police. Even the villagers from coastal Andhra Pradesh, where it used to be more traditional, are wearing shalwar kameez. All these things provoke these types of things, which is (sic) not in control of the police. So rapes per se, increase or decrease, you cannot attribute [this] to the police.”

I’m sorry, perhaps I missed something: Why is this man still the state’s police chief?

The only official rebuke, a mild one, came from home minister P. Chidambaram who “strongly disagreed” with Reddy.

Reddy’s office later said his remarks had, of course, been “misinterpreted”. The new statement read: “DGP has said one of the factors is the provoking dress (sic) which is being worn as present-day fashion for which the police has no control.”

So why is he still the police chief? Probably because his position has much support, mostly unstated but ever so often explicitly stated.

Two days later, in the neighbouring state of Karnataka, minister for women and child welfare CC Patil said he “personally” did not favour women wearing “provocative clothes (he did not define them but hinted that low-waist jeans fitted the description)”. Patil observed that women “need to be dignified in whatever they wear” and decide “which dress is safe for them”.


The minister at least recognised that “today’s lifestyle makes it mandatory for women to work like men and live on equal terms with them”.

The empowerment of women is closely related to a country’s economic development. Since it isn’t quite as clear if empowering women benefits development or if development reduces inequality between men and women, gender equality must be pushed for its own sake, argues Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Esther Duflo in a recent paper.

So it is in India’s best interests to push that equality, treat its women well and fiercely protect their rights in the workplace. This is especially important because Indian women, as a Nielsen survey found last year, are the most stressed in the world. About 87 per cent of Indian women (albeit from a small sample size) said that while much was expected from them at the workplace, unchanging home realities – meaning the Indian male, who still expects his working wife to cook the food, wash the clothes and raise his children – created enormous pressure. It is thus not surprising that in the emerging and developed world, India has one of the smallest percentages of women in the organised sectors (I am not counting the millions who toil at below subsistence wages as maids, bidi rollers and perform other menial jobs).

The recent observations by Messrs Seethamma, Reddy and Patil reveal how officials who should be guarding women’s rights – so they can pursue new destinies and in so doing transform their country – instead occupy their minds with unreal thoughts that only create more stresses in a woman’s already stressed life.

It’s been said before, many times, but in the face of stupidity, I must repeat this: There is no connection, never has been and never will be, between rape and what a woman wears.

Study the meticulous documentation of recent violence against women in India at a website called (run, encouragingly, by a male civil engineer and part-time farmer called Shemeer P. from Palakkad, Kerala) and you will see how clothes play no part in these random, familiar brutalities: A 10-year-old sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend in Chennai; a nurse whose eyes are gouged out before being raped in Delhi; an 11-year-old abducted and gang-raped by three men in Gajuwaka, coastal Andhra; a six-year-old raped and killed in Mysore by a ‘trusted’ neighbour; a woman out on a family errand abducted and raped in an autorickshaw in Mumbai. 

Only a perverse mind would believe there is a link between what these women and children wore and the atrocities visited on them. Modern India, evidently, has no shortage of such perverse minds.

This article was published in the Hindustan Times on January 5, 2012.

Archived from Communalism Combat, January 2012.Year 18, No.163 – Gender Justice



Related Articles