A woman wearing ripped jeans cannot be a good role model, not for her own children or for society, so opined a certain Chief Minister in a remark that soon went viral. The storm that erupted on social media over the minister’s outrage over ripped jeans is a reminder of the excessive importance given to clothes, especially women’s clothes and what constitutes decent attire for women. Outrageous and offensive though the remarks were, they have rekindled debates on what women should and should not wear. As elsewhere in this volume of essays, we shall attempt to view this debate through the mirror of Urdu poetry and seek answers in the words of male Urdu poets, both past and present, to glean a “majoritarian” view on libaas (dress/clothes) and what women should, and in some cases, should not do with it.

As always, the views range from provocative to traditionalist, sometimes operating from a space of benign patriarchy to, occasionally, inciting outright rebellion against accepted best practices; but this essay will be confined to the male gaze, to how men see women and, more to the point, how they would prefer to see them dressed. As to how women see matters of dress, let’s keep that for another occasion.

Let us begin with the aanchal, especially the udta hua aanchal (the billowing veil) that both conceals and reveals tantalising glimpses, that is at once a sign of modesty and a source of much speculation as to what lies behind, is the subject of profuse amounts of Urdu poetry. Even a liberal, feminist poet such as Ali Sardar Jafri falls back on the old, romantic trope of the aanchal and the mystique of its falling:

Apne udte hue aanchal ko na rah rah ke sambhaal
Husn ke parcham-e-zar-taar ko lahraane de

Don’t constantly fix your billowing veil
Let the gold-threaded pennant of beauty flutter

The aanchal is invoked, time and again, for the spreading night or the clouds that cover the moon as also for something pure that has now been soiled (maila aanchal) or poverty and want (phata aanchal). Then there’s also maa ka aanchal, a mother’s veil that is at once evocative of shelter, warmth, safety, nurturing.

Mushafi Ghulam Hamdani speaks of the allure of the female form beneath the outer raiments:

Yuun hai dalak badan ki uss pairahan ki tah mein
Surḳhi badan ki jaise chhalke badan ki tah mein

Such is the lithe body beneath the folds of the dress
Like the red glow of the body gleaming from beneath

Then there’s the ultimate male fantasy embodied in this sher by Akbar Hameedi:

Libaas mein hai woh tarz-e-tapaak-e-aaraaish
Jo ang chaahe chhupaanaa jhalak jhalak jaae

Her clothes have such a style of embellishment
The parts she wishes to hide glimmers ‘n glimpses

And this by Jan Nisar Akhtar:

Maanaa ki rang rang tiraa pairahan bhi hai
Par iss mein kuchh karishma-e-aks-e-badan bhi hai

Agreed that your colourful attire adds to your allure
But the magic of your body’s outline, too, adds to it

Of all the many items of women’s clothing, the greatest amount of poetry is to be found on the angiya (a brassiere or short-fitted blouse or bralette worn under a diaphanous kurta). Sample this sher by Munir Shikohabadi with its delicious play on words:

Shabnam ki hai angiyaa tale angiyaa ki pasina
Kyaa lutf hai shabnam tah-e-shabnam nazar aai

The dew of sweat beneath this angiya made from dewdrops
What joy to spot dewdrops beneath a layer of dewdrops

Nazeer Akbarabadi, the “bazaar-poet” from Agra, has written with great naturalness on not just the female body but left us with a catalogue of women’s ornaments, toiletries and cosmetics popular in the 18th century in poems such as Pari ka Sarapa and Chitvan mein sharaarat hai aur seene bhi chanchal hai. Here are the last lines from Saraapaa husn-e-samdhan goyaa gulshan ki kyaari hai:

Bhare joban pe itraati jhamak angiyaa ki dikhlaati
Kamar lehngey se bal khaati latak ghunghat ki bhaari hai

Proud of the prime of her youth showing glimpses of her angiya
Her sinuous waist beneath the lehnga, her face hidden behind a heavy veil

The choli finds itself centre stage in the popular male imagination, be it songs from popular Hindi cinema or conventional Urdu poetry. What the angiya was to an older generation that fantasised over the glimmering inner wear visible through a pearly, diaphanous outer garment, the visible in-your-face blitheness of the choli is for the latter-day poet, and the more chust (snug) it is the better! The choli finds itself added to other appendages as in choli-daaman ka saath (meaning to be inseparable from something or someone), chaak choli (slit or torn), or bheegi choli (damp with perspiration or the colours of Holi). Even a classicist such as Mir Taqi Mir has this to say about the choli:

Guundh ke goyaa patti gul ki woh tarkiib banaaii hai
Rang badan ka taab dekho jab choli bheege paseene mein

As though the petals of the rose have been kneaded
See the colours of her body when her choli is drenched in sweat

Another item of women’s clothing that finds profuse mention in Urdu poetry is the dupatta. Used as much to dab tears of helplessness as to cover one’s head with modesty, for the poet it’s a tantalising length of fabric. Ideally, though, it must keep “honour” safely hidden within its folds as unequivocally declared by Mardan Ali Khan Rana:

Abru aanchal mein dupatte ke chhupaanaa hai bajaa
Turk kyaa mayaan mein rakhte nahin talvaaron ko

It’s only right to keep honour hidden in the hem of a dupatta
After all, don’t Turkish soldiers sheath their swords in scabbards

Dagh Dehelvi takes a jaunty sally at the dupatta that reveals in a vain bid to conceal:

Yeh sair hai ki dupattaa udaa rahi hai havaa
Chhupaate hain jo woh siina kamar nahin chhupti

In this excursion the breeze lifts the dupatta and ends up
Revealing the waist as she tries in vain to cover her chest

Much like the hectoring minister of the recent ripped-jeans debacle, here’s an unknown poet wagging the metaphorical finger at women and telling them how they should wear their dupatta:

Dupatte ko aage se dohraa na odho
Numudaar cheezeen chhupaane se haasil

Don’t wear your duppata folded in the front
Things that should remain hidden become visible

Taken together, this sampler highlights the objectification of women by men, even some of the finest minds of their age and shows how deep patriarchy cuts. It takes a lone voice, such as a Majaz, who can incite women to turn the beautiful veil on their foreheads and refashion them into pennants reminiscent of the standards carried into battle.

Excerpted with permission from ‘What Men Would Want Women to Wear, and Why’ in Love in the Time of Hate: In the Mirror of Urdu, Rakhshanda Jalil, Simon & Schuster India.