Do clothes make the woman? Only if we let them

Swati Deva says those who object to being judged by appearance should not judge others

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 February, 2013, 1:55am

Whether it is India, Hong Kong, Australia or the US, the question of how women should dress or what clothes are "provocative" has been raised in cases of rape or molestation.

Men have tried to argue that, sometimes, the way a woman is dressed can become a major factor in the chain of events that follow. Women, on the other hand, have always felt offended by any such remarks or conclusions.

My question here is - is it really something women should get offended about or is there something more to this issue?

Clothes have traditionally been used for keeping us safe from the elements. Over time, they have become fashion statements. We ask our daughters to look pretty and our sons to look handsome when they go to a birthday party. We ask students to look presentable when they attend interviews. Mourners in the West should wear black, and brides white. People judge us according to what we wear.

This is not about a male- or female-dominated society; these dress codes are created by society in general. But these judgments are personal, depending on who you are, and where you stand.

It is very unlikely that somebody who walks into a room dressed "inappropriately" (by the standards of that particular place) would go unnoticed.

In fact, most of the time, it is the women who pass more comments, judge more and criticise each other mostly on the basis of what someone is wearing. We may argue that women think differently and their intentions are usually more to do with "gossiping" than of a sexual nature. But men could also argue the contrary.

Men think differently. And, indeed, points of view are very subjective. They are influenced by one's background, community, religion, and the like.

Of course, none of this gives anybody the right to rape, molest or tease a woman just because she is wearing a particular kind of clothes. But if women don't want to be judged by what they are wearing, they must stop judging each other, and themselves.

If we want men to change their opinion about women and the way they dress, we need to change our opinions, too. Just because a woman thinks she looks pretty in a particular dress while a man thinks she looks sexy in that dress, there's no reason to be offended.

You may well form an opinion about yourself when you dress in a particular way, but you can't control other people's opinions.

If we really want people to understand others and judge them on their substance rather than how they dress, we should perhaps take a long hard look in the mirror first.

Swati Deva is a former lecturer in the Faculty of Business at Hong Kong Polytechnic University