On March 14, women football players from all over the country assembled for a seven-a-side exhibition football match at Harishchandrapur in West Bengal. However,  they were not allowed to play and the match had to be cancelled.

The Progressive Youth Club of Chandipur village in Harishchandrapur police station reported that the match was cancelled because of a fatwa issued by the Muslim clerics against the match. The maulavis had reportedly said that the match would be against Islam, and threatened an agitation if it went ahead.

The local imam, Maqsud Alam, subsequently claimed that no fatwa had been issued against the match, but that he had simply stated his opinion that Islam does not permit men to watch women playing the field wearing short dresses. It’s pertinent to note here that a majority of women footballers around the globe wear a traditional kit comprised of a jersey, shorts, cleats and knee-length socks worn over shin guards.

The block administration, which had earlier given permission for the football match, cited law and order issues to cancel the event. Block Development Officer Biplab Roy conceded, "We had to cancel the football match because of a possible deterioration in the law and order situation."

Telling women what not to wear

Article 19 (1) (a) of the Indian Constitution gives citizens of India the right to freedom of speech and expression. In a country, which fetes a multitude of cultures, dress is a recognised form of expressing identity. Article 51 A (e), which talks of Fundamental Duties, states that it shall be the duty of every citizen of India “to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities; to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women”.

Pic courtesy: Slutwalk Bangalore

However, notwithstanding such Constitutional provisions, sartorial diktats meant to be imposed on women have a long history in India. They have not been confined to any one community. The unfailing regularity with which these have surfaced over the course of history paints quite an alarming picture as the following recapitulation shows.

In September 1997, the co-educational Christ College in Bangalore banned girls from wearing jeans and short skirts, calling the attire "indecent". This resulted in a furore because boys could wear jeans no matter how tight they were. The ban was removed after much debate.

In March 1999, the Berhampore Girls College in West Bengal placed a placard at the gate banning entry to all girls not wearing saris. The announcement endorsed a 1947 decision by the college authorities to ban any form of dress other than saris for girls on campus. A few students made a move to break out of this mould that spurred the non-teaching staff of the college into defending old traditions.

In 2000, almost all girls' colleges in Kanpur implemented the dress code laid down by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which laid down that women could not wear jeans or skirts to college. The issue flared up when two girls – Heena Kaisar and Chetna Bharatiya – from SN Sen Girls College, Kanpur, assaulted their principal Madhulekha Vidyarthi for denying them entry into a farewell party on campus because they were wearing jeans.

While the assault on the principal cannot be condoned under any circumstances, the incident stands as yet another testimony to the repeated history of socially-sanctioned censorship on dress codes. Though accusing fingers were pointed directly at the ABVP, Anand Mapuskar, Maharashtra State Secretary of ABVP said at the time, “The ABVP has never enforced a dress code in college campuses all over the country. We had nothing to do with the dress code incident in Kanpur either. The management of several colleges have decided to enforce a dress code for women.”

This wasn't the only violent incident. In 2003, four women in the Kashmir Valley, including two young students, a teacher and a 43-year-old woman lost their lives, because they did not follow the diktat of a militant group that all women must wear veils. Three of the women were shot dead while the fourth, Shehnaz, a second-year student at the Girls Higher Secondary School in Palandhar, was beheaded.

The diktats have not always confined themselves to attire. On December 18, 2004, Tapati Dutta, headmistress of Bonhooghly Girls School sent a notice to her teachers. The notice asked the lady teachers of the school not to wear lipstick, or line their eyes with kohl or surma, or wear dangling ear-rings within or even outside the school premises whenever they represented the school.

Seven of the teachers refused to sign the notice. Three days later, the headmistress is said to have stopped the dissident teachers from entering the classrooms. When three of the seven dissidents softened their positions, the embargo was made applicable to the remaining four.

Pic courtesy: Slutwalk Kolkata

The very next year, The Telegraph dated July 25, 2005, reported that Muslim women of Cheetah Camp in Mumbai, a locality dominated by maulanas of the conservative Tablighi Jamaat, were forbidden from having tea in restaurants. Women were also banned from watching television and wearing certain types of clothes.

But the Forum Against Oppression of Women, a women’s group organised a protest march against this fatwa. “We took one group of women out to tea in a restaurant,” said Sandhya Gokhale a member of the group. "Their excitement was amazing." About a hundred women, many of them wearing burkhas, came marching down the crowded streets of Bhendi Bazaar, another Muslim neighbourhood in Mumbai, carrying roughly-made cut-outs of maulanas with their faces crossed out.

This was perhaps the first time that the community’s religious heads in the city were being asked scathing questions by women in the open. Of the many questions thrown at the self-proclaimed moral guardians was one that said: Shareer hamara, kapde hamare aap ke baap ka kya jaata hai? (It’s our body, our clothes, who are you to decide what we do with it?)

The roots of repression

Advocates of strict dress codes for women often cite a "better-safe-than-sorry" approach. But how often we have heard of an Indian woman being molested, raped, eve-teased or harassed because she was dressed provocatively in shorts, bikini or lingerie?

The gang-rape victim in Delhi in 2012 was dressed conventionally by any stretch of the imagination. Suzanne Jordan, the so-called Park Street rape victim was not wearing shorts when she was sexually assaulted in Kolkata in 2012. Reports of rapes (especially of minors) coming in from the heartland, where women have culturally always stuck to traditional forms of attire, have seen an unprecedented rise.

Most recently, on the night of March 14 when the women’s football match had to be called off, a 74-year-old nun Convent of Jesus and Mary School, in Ranaghat, West Bengal, was raped. What she was wearing was definitely not the provocation. One cannot help but wonder why the way women dress became such a huge debate.

A longer version of this article was first published on indiatogether.org, with the support of Oorvani Foundation – community-funded media for the new India.