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The Not-so-curious Case of the Nightie Ban

Seema Massot (seema.massot@gmail.com) is a culture and communication consultant based in Chennai.

Why did a village in Andhra Pradesh ban the seemingly innocuous nightie?

Anywhere in India, nay, anywhere in the whole world, you will be hard-pressed to find a woman who has never ever been told what to wear or has never had to think of whether her clothes would make someone else feel uncomfortable. Seemingly simple choices of how women dress or move their own bodies in public spaces or in the home are, in fact, matters of control and power over women’s agency. Clothes are used as a tool to either sexualise the female body or strip it of its sexuality to best suit the oppressor’s need at the moment. Think of why the clothes of women who are victims of sexual assault are called into question. Or why widowed women are even today discouraged from wearing “attractive” clothing or accessories. These powers vary in potency, but are the omnipresent powers of the state, of patriarchy, of intimate relationships, of society, and of internalised patriarchy in women.

Recently, a coastal fishing village in Andhra Pradesh, Tokalapalli, decided to ban women from wearing nighties between 7 am and 7 pm. The humble nightie doesn’t seem to warrant this kind of a reaction, surely! The nightie is as innocuous as it is inoffensive. It is an oversized, loose fitting, one-piece attire that women across India wear as night clothes and during the day and out in public places too. In smaller towns and working-class neighbourhoods, it is not uncommon to see women walk about with neatly combed hair adorned with flowers, their faces aglow with a greyish tinge of talcum powder, pottu (vermillion) and eyeliner in place, whilst wearing a nightie accessorised with a dupatta.

To appreciate the wide reach of this piece of garment one only needs to look at the variety on offer. You can get an inexpensive cotton nightie for ₹ 120, or a handloom cotton, block-printed kaftan-cut one for upwards of ₹ 2,000. Utility features, like pockets and nursing-friendly zipper designs, can be found easily. From posh high-rises to slums, nighties cut across social classes, even if some women are more fashion-conscious than others to never step out of the home in their “nightwear.”  

So why go so far as to ban only nighties? Because maybe the woman’s body is once again obliged to bear the weight of safeguarding culture and tradition. But, also consider how the order doesn’t forbid women from wearing a nightie altogether, but only between 7 am and 7 pm, as if to say that a woman cannot sleep in later than 7 in the morning because by that time she needs to be out of the nightie. And, is the 7 pm cut-off a hint that it’s the appropriate time for women to return to the “safety” of their homes? Women should not have to explain themselves for such a simple choice, but comfort, convenience, practicality, and affordability are some very compelling reasons why so many women choose to wear the nightie throughout the day.

In Tokalapalli, it is reported that it was at the behest of a few women that the village elders came up with the ban, as men were “uncomfortable” looking at nightie-clad women out and about in public spaces “washing clothes in the open and going to the grocery store.” One could concede that the nightie isn’t particularly fashionable, but if decorum is the concern, then it would follow that men wearing their night clothes (shorts and old lungis) must also be included under such a ban. It all comes back to the control over a woman’s body wherein lies her honour even as it carries the burden of protecting culture.

Draupadi’s disrobing in the Mahabharata finds continuity in women being stripped of their dupattas on the streets in attempts of shaming them. In popular cinema, the robing and disrobing of a woman is a recurring symbol of male control of the female body. In the 1990s Tamil movie Singaravelan—starring Kamal Haasan and Khushboo—Velan, a smart village boy comes to the big city with the sole objective of finding an estranged cousin, Sumathi, and marrying her without revealing his identity. After locating this cousin, who turns out to be a fierce, independent, and athletic woman, Velan’s charm, musical eve-teasing, goofiness, and stalking fail to win her over. So, at his wit’s end, Velan decides to embarrass Sumathi by telling her she doesn’t even know how to be a woman, she doesn’t know “how to drape a saree, how to put on a pottu,” and how to be coy whilst wearing all this. Maybe, this hits Sumathi’s fashion-forward sensitivity so hard that it makes her head spin and hear Velan’s accusations in her mind over and over again. Something snaps in her and she emerges in a saree, with an appropriate coyness to go along, and ready to embrace Velan. Finally, she is tamed into submission, all by changing the clothes on her back. That is the magical ability of clothes to control women’s behaviour or, as they like to put it, “women’s character”!

Women shouldn’t have to justify their choice of clothes, but I conducted a little experiment nevertheless. I washed a cotton saree and a cotton nightie with a bar of soap (in the comfort and privacy of my bathroom that had running water). It took me 8 minutes to wash, rinse, wring and hang to dry the saree versus 2 minutes 50 seconds for the nightie. And, that’s that!

 

Updated On : 2nd Jan, 2019

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