The Woman Condition

SlutWalks and short skirts: When (and how) a woman’s modesty became linked to her clothes

Any enforcement of women’s modesty is proof of the failure of that culture.

The policing of women begins insidiously, cloaked casually and convincingly in good intentions. Maybe the first time it happens, a mother will do it to her own daughter.

At 15, I came home to stern words. “You must learn to carry yourself better,” my mother said to me. “There is no need to make a spectacle of yourself and attract unwarranted attention.” I was nonplussed. I had been out with a close friend, both of us atypical to our gender, misfits in the teen-girl-interested-in-boys milieu, ergo invisible. It turned out that the husband of the woman who cleaned our house had seen my friend M and I doubled over in laughter on the corner of the street and sent word about our immodesty. It is the first time I remember challenging my mother calmly, “A man who beats his wife thinks I should not laugh on the street?”

I watched my mother’s face change in an instant. Horrified at her own conditioned reaction, she immediately acquiesced and apologised. It was a turning point in our relationship. But I have carried a quiet rage ever since.

Concepts of modesty

Discussions on modesty have degenerated into frustratingly simplistic rants about what women wear. There are shrill cries that the Burqa versus the Bikini is symbolic of the great Clash of Civilizations. But a rudimentary Google search about modesty throws up mostly western Christian websites, blogs and thinkpieces all tomtomming the glories of modesty. (The Bible, Genesis 3:7 claims dibs on the first people to realise they needed “loin coverings”.) Today, the traditionalists of Islam and Hinduism seem to agree that the natural shape of women’s bodies, whether their faces, ankles, wrists, breasts, buttocks, is immodest. Far from clashing, the civilisations concur, if only in this one regard – the policing of women.

In theory, modesty as part of a social contract is not without its merits. From the Latin modestus, to keep within measure, modesty was offered as key to Cicero’s “golden mean of living… the parent of many other virtues”. In this quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2521-2522, modesty is presented as an “integral part of temperance”, a guide to “how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity. Modesty is decency”. It was interpreted to dissuade any displays of excess, even more traditionally male demonstrations of power or wealth. It’s what any civilised society would aspire to.

Yet this quick encyclopaedia timeline of the evolution in concepts of modesty reveals its slow but steady skew towards a focus on women’s wardrobes. It is important to remember that women’s clothes and women’s rights are linked in far more important ways than their mere ability to arouse a man. The formation of The Rational Dress Society sought to facilitate the increased participation of women in public life. The Society advocated women wear no more than three kilograms of underwear for ease and agility. Thus unburdened, they then shocked society by demanding (and winning) the right to vote and riding bicycles.

More than a century later, some ultra-orthodox religious men still find women on bicycles “too provocative”. So perhaps it is worth trying, for a minute, to understand where these excitable men are coming from.

In his book The Evolution of Modesty, Havelock Ellis, a 19th century physician who studied sexuality suggests first that modesty is “an instinctive fear to concealment usually centering around the sexual processes”.

Okay.

He then says that modesty is “more peculiarly feminine, the woman who is lacking in this kind of fear is lacking also in sexual attractiveness to the normal and average man”.

Fine. We are hoping for the above-average man anyway.

But then Ellis makes the case that “the sexual impulse in women is fettered by an inhibition which has to be conquered”, stressing that the “immense importance of feminine modesty in creating masculine passion must be fairly obvious”.

I would say, ladies, please go ahead and make a fairly obvious rude gesture to that.

Because now we are utterly confused. Is sartorial modesty meant to protect men from being turned on by women? Or is it a tool to render women into veiled coquettes to turn men on?

Navigating Indian cultures

The answer may lie in the link between modesty culture and rape culture.

American Christian feminist and champion of the rights of women to serve as ministers and in leadership roles in the church, Jory Micah, recounts her early problems with the enforcement of a dress code in Bible school: “I realise how much it harmed my heart to have many peers and ‘mentors’ looking me up and down, examining my body, counting how many curves were showing…”

She is quite clear that “grown men church leaders should never be policing girls’ and women’s clothing or bodies. It’s creepy and none of their business”. We all cringe at religious propaganda that makes associations between women who seem sexually liberated with “chewed gum” and “unwrapped sweeties”. But this emphasis placed on supposed purity and virginity is not only degrading but harms survivors of sexual assault, creating room for victim blaming.

India’s Minister of Culture and Tourism Mahesh Sharma recently tried to clarify his stance on “revealing clothing” in a tourist advisory, saying he was just “concerned” for the safety of women. No Indian woman was surprised he placed the onus of women’s sexual safety on her choice of clothes, the time of day she went out in public, her ability to read the apparently homogenous (and misogynous) Indian culture. A culture where courts have had to define what it is to outrage the modesty of a woman.

The counterpoint to our minister’s helpful advice is the freedom women feel when they travel to countries not obsessed with women’s modesty. You can drink a glass of wine, smoke a cigarette, wear a skirt, sit alone in a café, travel at night with no fear of incident. We met a Pakistani farm labourer on a train in Italy and he remarked on the differences between South Asia and Europe. “Here, women have a lot of freedom,” he said, looking at me and my daughters meaningfully. “A mother may not even know where her daughter is.” “So much more relaxing for the men, no? Knowing that other men will respect her?” I shot back. He grudgingly agreed.

The trouble is we are not always sure where we stand in this discussion on modesty of clothing and deportment. Our big cities organise SlutWalks to protest victim-blaming while in rural areas women are routinely stripped to shame them. An Indian girl in a bikini on a local beach will cause scores of desi men to whip out phone cameras (or worse) while a ghoonghat or niqab will elicit audible tut-tutting at an upscale restaurant. Every day in urban India we dress for our culture and must navigate several different Indian cultures all united by male entitlement.

We seem to have our work cut out for us. First, we must acknowledge that any enforcement of women’s modesty is proof of the failure of that culture rather than its greatness. And second, we must remember to laugh out loud more often in public, if nothing else then at patriarchy’s inability to police itself.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

Any comprehensive solution to address the water problem in urban India needs to take into account the specific challenges around water management and distribution:

Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

Addressing these challenges and improving access to clean water for all needs a combination of short-term and medium-term solutions. It also means involving the community and various stakeholders in implementing the solutions. This is the crux of the recommendations put forth by BASF.

The proposed solutions, based on a study of water issues in cities such as Mumbai, take into account different aspects of water management and distribution. Backed by a close understanding of the cost implications, they can make a difference in tackling urban water challenges. These solutions include:

Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

Testing and purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, the adoption of affordable and reliable multi-household water filter systems which are electricity free and easy to use can help, to some extent, access to safe drinking water at a domestic level. Also, the use of household water testing kits and the installation of water quality sensors on pipes, that send out alerts on water contamination, can create awareness of water contamination and drive suitable preventive steps.

Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

For BASF, the proposed solutions are an extension of their close engagement with developing water management and water treatment solutions. The products developed specially for waste and drinking water treatment, such as Zetag® ULTRA and Magnafloc® LT, focus on ensuring sustainability, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the water and sludge treatment process.

BASF is also associated with operations of Reliance Industries’ desalination plant at Jamnagar in Gujarat.The thermal plant is designed to deliver up to 170,000 cubic meters of processed water per day. The use of inge® ultrafiltration technologies allows a continuous delivery of pre-filtered water at a consistent high-quality level, while the dosage of the Sokalan® PM 15 I protects the desalination plant from scaling. This combination of BASF’s expertise minimises the energy footprint of the plant and secures water supply independent of the seasonal fluctuations. To know more about BASF’s range of sustainable solutions and innovative chemical products for the water industry, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.