Dress Code Double Standard for Men and Women in India

It’s official!  In a few days I will have lived in Bangalore for one year.  I’ve tried hard to surround myself with Indian friends so that my experience in India is as real as possible.  And I really do my best to be as respectful, sensitive and understanding as possible when it comes to the diverse cultural differences I face as an outsider living in a foreign land each day.  However, I still find it impossible to say that I understand the differences between our cultures when it comes to the dress code and the double standard for men and women.  Not right or wrong, I’m personally still just struggling with understanding it.

Yesterday I was driving down the road when I urgently yelled out for my driver Shiva to pull the car over and stop.  Sitting high above a busy street bustling with ladies in saris and salwars and gentlemen running around in their everyday western wear was the most shocking billboard I’ve seen so far in Bangalore.  The new Hanes ad campaign has just launched and one of the adverts showcases an attractive young man, lounging back seductively with one arm behind his head…with his ‘package’ in Hanes undies as the centre focus…and wearing absolutely nothing else.  Wow!  After seeing him, I sat and pondered why in the world I have to wrap a scarf around my shoulders when I am out in public in order not to shock people.  Are my shoulders really more provocative than almost naked Mr. Hanes?

Yes they are.

Oh my! Readjusting the lungi should not be a group activity….yet sadly it often is 🙂 hehe

If I understand it right, men from all classes are free to wear whatever they wish from any of the western fashion designers – including jeans and t-shirts and vests (that’s tank tops for Americans).  Men can also run around in a lungi, which for me I see as sort of the equivalent to the female sari but in mini-skirt form.  Lungis are cool actually.  Simple by design yet functional and great in the heat but sometimes when the guys adjust their lungi they flash the people around them, which can be hilarious.  I had seen a few men wearing a lungi when I first moved here last April but it wasn’t until I flew to Chennai in May that I caught a glimpse of thousands of lungis in just one weekend.  It’s hotter there on the coast so obviously the men have adapted their attire to the climate.

Yet to my surprise the women in Chennai were all still dressed the same as women in the cooler climate of Bangalore.  Why didn’t they also have a shorter version of the sari or a salwar with shorts or pirate pants?  From personal experience, I know the dress code varies for women depending on social standing or between upper/middle/lower classes.  Whereas my Indian girlfriends would never wear a sari or traditional Indian clothes anywhere outside of a wedding or other formal occasion, I know for a fact that my housekeeper doesn’t own anything but saris.  Interestingly, I’ve interviewed a young Muslim college girl once who confessed that she wore jeans twice while away at uni in Delhi until another Muslim friend saw her out in them and told her that they were unacceptable.  The girl honestly didn’t know this form of trouser was taboo and was mortified her parent’s might find out so she gave them to a Hindi friend.

Regardless of whether I like it or not, I have accepted the double standard and have adapted to it more or less while still wearing only western clothes except on special occasions.  Back in the beginning of my stay in India I did slip a couple of times and I distinctly remember the first time I was hissed at for showing too much skin.  I was at the Bangalore airport trying to find the outside counter to get that slip of paper needed to pass through security and go to check-in.  It was about 40 degrees and I was lugging a heavy bag and starting to sweat, which is not was a lady would like to have happen just before a long flight so I removed the scarf from around my shoulders.  Well, that did not go over well with one lady and she hissed at me!  Her immediate hissing made me realise just how inappropriate my act was.  I’ve only been hissed at twice but oddly enough both times by an older Muslim woman in a burka who I guess have zero tolerance for my shoulders or shins.

Va va voom! This hoarding was placed just below a really nice advert with penguins by the Bangalore traffic police. What a contrast!

My daughter and I have had many chats about this.  She’s 16 and has only ever lived in southern California or on the coast of the Med Sea in Spain, both places where coats and scarves are worn in winter but as little clothing as possible is worn in summer, especially at the beach where she spent much of her time.  The change in this part of her lifestyle has been tough.  In one of the hottest countries in the world, she is forced to cover up and wear more clothes than what she would in milder Spain and California — which doesn’t put a smile on her face, I guarantee you that!  She’s only ever known men and women to be equal in all things, and again this change with the dress code double standards is tough to accept.  She can’t wrap her head around why boys can wear whatever they want — especially in hot weather or at the pool and beach — but girls can’t.  We both love the adventure of India but it is often easier for me to accept these types of cultural differences that affect us personally than it is for my daughter.

From what Shiva says, there are even more men that wear lungis in Kerala than there are in Chennai but there is also a rare group of women there down south who fish for a living and who wear a lungi with a blouse and drape a towel from the lungi up towards the shoulder to cover the gap.  Go girls!  That has to be WAY cooler for them and more comfortable to fish in than anything else.

When I asked around, sadly most people cited that the double standard dress code is in place for safety.  Personally, I think that Indian men should be insulted by this because it’s as if to say they couldn’t control themselves if they saw Indian women in western clothes or a shorter sari. In India, modern-day fashion shouldn’t be an excuse for violence against women.  The blame for violence against women should be placed exactly where it lays – 100% with the attacker and never for a single moment with the victim.

Shiva added that part of the reason for the double standard is simple peer pressure.  As an example, he’s had buddies who have suggested that their wives buy a pair of cute jeans to wear with a kurta on top but the wives refuse out of fear of what the neighbours and their friends would say about them.  Jeans and western clothes are synonymous with “easy women” nowadays in India and they want to steer clear of that kind of judgement.

I’m bound to shock someone from time to time with my “extreme” attire, as one conservative male colleague once said to me…but I still think that the underwear guy trumps my shoulders so I’m not too worried about it!

XOXO Angela

© Angela Carson 2012

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Angela Carson

At 21 I left uni, jumped into my Jeep Wrangler, and drove from my native California to live an adventure in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I've explored 32 countries on 4 continents, residing in 7 of them (currently Kuala Lumpur is my home). By day I'm a digital nomad and by night I'm a passionate storyteller. I even have a private pilot's license and was shot at once by bandits!
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31 Comments on “Dress Code Double Standard for Men and Women in India

  1. You cannot simplify an entire country of over 1 billion people like that. When I was in college we wore jeans, knee length skirts, chudidaars, kurtis, ankle length skirts & sleeveless tops. No one cared. On special occasions like festivals or sacred days we wore mostly half-sarees, sometimes sarees. We got more attention from our class guys during those days & comparatively a lot more compliments too.
    My cousins in small town Andhra, mostly wear chudidaars & half sarees. They would never come anywhere near jeans or shorts, because they consider them not feminine enough.
    Of course if you go to Muslim neighborhoods, they are waaay more conservative. They may consider showing their face/hair to be provocative. They consider us Hindu women to be indecently dressed because in our sarees we expose our midriffs, waist & backs.
    My friend’s Indian cousin got married to a Londoner in Hyd. Quite a few of his female relatives declined to wear sarees because they were uncomfortable exposing their white midriffs.(lol, this coming from people who are more comfortable at beach?)
    So, it is all about cultural values & conditioning.
    I’ve been living in the west for almost a decade now & have never worn a bikini. It just doesn’t appeal to my sensibilities. Most of my Indian friends here don’t care for the bikini culture too.
    But the good thing about india is one needn’t give a damn about what others think(except family). As long as you know how to carry yourself & are aware of the kind of place you are going, you are going to be fine.
    Obviously if you wear shorts to a temple, you’ll be stared at. But if it’s for a mall or movies – you needn’t care about what anyone else thinks.

    • Hi, thanks so much for commenting and adding to the discussion. You have some different views from the people I spoke to and interviewed or who I have in my life so it is interesting — especially the comment about not giving a damn what people think. That is not a common feeling with most Indians I know, they tell me the exact opposite actually. Almost every single person I know actually. There is tremendous pressure from the outside, especially for my friends in the public eye like cricketers, actors, well known entrepreneurs and politicians. It is funny about the sari, I feel the same way about my midriff, even though I am perfectly comfortable in a bikini. The thing is I guess that a bikini at the beach, river, lake or pool is expected and accepted but flashing my belly at a wedding or in a formal setting like work is a no-no for us. Again, we are all different and that’s what makes life fun and interesting 🙂 Cheers, angela

      • Interesting isn’t it, what part of the body is appropriate to reveal in different parts of the world? In the west, women can expose their legs in short skirts both at work and at play, it’s even considered elegant to do so, but the midriff – no, no, except at the beach. Whereas, in India, revealing the midriff is no big deal, and in fact the sari is also elegant and formal work wear. But exposing the legs appears vulgar. And so, pants are OK, because they encase the legs, but not short skirts that reveal them. There’s also a perception that western clothes aren’t really “serious”, they are fun things for young girls to wear, or for celebrities, but for everyday living, if you want to be taken seriously, then you wear a sari or a salwar kameez.

        • I couldn’t agree more with you, well said! I do like wearing a sari or salwar kameez but I just wish that the freedom of choice and levels of judgement placed on women surrounding fashion was on par (even a bit) with the freedom of choice and levels of judgement placed on men. That’s the part I have a tough time with…

      • My impression of current India is that while there are many women and their families that are accepting of equal status for women, majority are still in a repressive mindset. They do have double standards about men and women and do give lot more importance to what others think of them rather than what their souls truly want for them. I have returned to India after 10 years in UK and I am pleased to see many young girls and women not caring about what others think when they wear western dresses. Perhaps girls and women like Kiran do have supportive families but the vast majority still oppress women and women are blamed for sexual violence if they dress/act differently to what they are supposed to be .i.e not have independent thinking, not have a life of their own, not have free will choices.

        I always found this non-sense irritating when growing up and chose to wear my cousin’s shorts as they were comfortable in the summer. Now i realise all this palaver is because majority of men here view women as nothing but sexual objects and think if someone wears shorts they are enticing them. They do really have the brains of frogs. Hopefully things will start to change with women embracing their power.

  2. Dear Angela,

    Sadly, I couldn’t agree more about these double standards. I think the the first sign of a civilised society is in how it looks upon its women. It is a pity that we condone the violence against women by saying the woman was “provocative” – now what does that speak about our men ? Are they allowed to be savages who do not know how to conduct / control themselves and can jump upon any woman considered “provocative” in public by merely wearing shorts or off shoulder dresses and showing some skin ? Especially in a tropical country as ours and the harsh summers that we have..

    Not even going into the other socio economic factors – I think the biggest contributor to this – is all the repression that has been going on for centuries in Indian society, in the name of morality… Majority of Indians simply do not have social sanction to date and choose their sexual partner, like you do in the west.. so what do they do with all that repressed desire ?

    I read an interesting article somewhere long ago – that the cities that have more prolific red light areas – are the ones that are safer for women in general. Because men in those cities are not hanging around on the streets leching at women. They find a way to address their need elsewhere. Makes sense ?

    Mumbai for example. I do not know if you have been there already – if not – you should. Mumbai is more accepting of women showing skin in every day life. And Mumbai most certainly has one of the biggest red light areas..

    India – you will realise by now – can be summed up by one phrase – “the land of stark contrasts”

    You inspire me to write a complementary blog about my observations as an Indian in the USA..

    XOXO

    Debjani

    • Hi Debjani, Wow, thanks so MUCH! I appreciate your two cents and insight and am so happy you like the blog. And if you do end up starting one of your own please do reach out to me and I will add you to my blogroll. Would be fun to hear the flip side of my experience 🙂 Please do come back and comment next time something sparks your fancy. Loved the XOXO by the way, as embarrassing as it is to admit I stole that from Gossip Girl which is a guilty pleasure show for me, hehe XOXO, angela

    • Hi Debjani, I’m really happy to see more and more Indians who have evolved/ liberated their thinking out of “the past colonial mould”. You very aptly put forth the existing realities. also I would like to thank Angela very much, for creating such an opportunity for discussion among us Indians and also with our western counterparts regarding many things/taboos in present Indian culture which need a debate, understanding and/or a change.

      I would like to mention one thing, like the prevalence red lights and consequent higher threshold levels of tolerance for women’s body exposure
      in public. One thing which makes big difference is “night life’ which is non existent in India. Even in big cities here it resembles a bit the nightlife of cities of the western world, but far less of that in quantity or quality I guess.

      Like here in Bangalore they screwed-up the nightlife by imposing time deadline i.e by 11:30pm everything should close. Also they don’t know the difference between Dance bar and discotheque so when they banned dancing and liquor together discotheques became victims along with dance bars (so called fronts for prostitution). Things changed a bit for better recently when they reallocated licenses to few of the discotheques in the city, and also I read (in Blog: save Bangalore nightlife on Facebook) that soon they are gonna extend the deadline to 1:30am. Kept my fingers crossed and eagerly waiting/wishing for more and more affordable discotheques to open soon, so that I can bring back my nightlife to life.

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  4. It’s not just the lungi or the underwear. I can’t leave my house without seeing at leat 10 men with their package out in full view of the public while peeing on walls. I’ve even had the misfortune of seeing a man masturbate on the side of the train tracks right outside of the station. It’s perfectly acceptible for men to expose themselves this way but you let a womans calf show and it’s scandalous.

    • OMG are you serious about the train tracks guy? Honestly that is something I hope to never see. Did you want to poke your eyes out after? 🙁 I see the pee guys and sadly about a month or so ago I saw a guy going #2 as well. Still can’t believe that….

      • Sorry it took so long to reply. I didn’t get any email notification. WordPress has been acting strange for me lately.

        I’m serious about the train track guy. The image is embeded in my mind now. He had on a blue shirt, pants around his ankles and was going at it beside a bush. Not that the bush could have possibly offered in protection. There was a wall behind him preventing the neighborhood from seeing but not the many trains that passed. My husband laughed when I told him about.

        If you’re ever on a train try to keep the blinds closed through rural areas. Between Amritsar and Delhi there’s plenty of them and I’ve managed to accidentally video record a few people going #2 while trying to document all the places I’d traveled. It’s very difficult to get used to.

        • hahaha OMG!!!! Duly noted, thanks for the advice. I’ve seen the sizes of homes for lower income families so I suppose that when families live together in homes with only one large living space and no restroom that it would make it pretty challenging for men – or women – to masturbate … so the picture you paint sounds like probably the only and best option for some people (though obviously not the people on the train with window seats, hehe).

  5. i think woman’s dress in india are more depends on circumstances rather than anything else.as you mentioned you like to wear least cloths possible in summer it might suited in areas where weather is milder but not in india where only 3 season exist tem. cross 52 degrees some times so indian clothing which are cotton,loose and cover whole body are best which prevent heatstroke,sunburn,dehydration,and most importantly protect fairness.in winter where tem. fall low as 5 degree it protect them from chill and breeze so its a practically suited in indian climate.
    someone above also made a very good point that western clothing are not feminine enough because it enhances and reflected beauty of indian woman when wearing with ornaments which is not possible with western outfits.i think western women don’t wear much ornament and jewelry because its not suited with their outfit may thats why they look bland and masculine more specifically american and british.
    i reckon equality should judged by thoughts and rights rather than cloths.

    • Hi, thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree with you completely that for anyone who doesn’t live in an air conditioned world and have the luxury of a driver, etc that protecting the skin and body is important. So by default then does that mean that Indian women are a bit more clever than the men who are running around in a short lungi and exposing their skin? 😉 😉

      After living here for a year, I can safely say that I believe fully and 100% that men are free to wear absolutely whatever they wish that is sold in stores here in India but women are not. Most Indian men don’t still wear traditional Indian wear like their ancestors. And even if a man wears a lungi it is often paired with a western style button-down shirt, not a traditional kurta. There are two sets of rules here, not right or wrong or good or bad but it is a true fact, not my opinion. And the amount of skin it is okay for a man to show is very different from the amount of skin a woman is allowed to show and still be respected. It’s just tough for me to understand it….

  6. Muslims consider any woman who does not wear a burka as indecent and unworthy of respect. It is a sad fact that they are getting more and more religious while non muslims are going the opposite way around the world.

    • Hi, thanks for chiming in on the conversation 🙂

      I actually have full respect for Muslim women and their beliefs after interviewing so many of them for my burka article. Their dress code is never going to be something that I fully understand but after meeting and speaking to so many sweet and wonderful girls and women and hearing their views I no longer have my closed-minded American views that I had before moving to India. BUT, with that said, I definitely don’t appreciate the hissing and negative vibes I get from the ladies who have zero tolerance for me being different. ….like I always say, the world would be a very boring place if we were all the same, so thank goodness for our differences 🙂

  7. Hi..
    Dress codes are a little tricky here in India. I’m used to the double standard, which really does exist. I don’t feel completely oppressed. Of course, it’s not the same everywhere as you have already mentioned.
    To a large extent, what we wear is an indicator of what we’re comfortable wearing as opposed to what we are allowed to wear, although I do know of instances where girls are prohibited from dressing in a certain manner. I, for instance, am most comfortable in jeans and a tee or sometimes a kurta. Wearing a sari demands an occasion and it really is a big deal when I do. I have worn a half sari once in my life, but I was just too conscious of myself to be comfortable in it. On the flip side, I cannot claim to be too comfortable in a tank top or a halter, or a skirt which isn’t at least knee length. I guess you could call it social conditioning.
    I must also mention here, that I don’t mind what anyone else wears. It’s quite common these days to see girls around the city in cool and comfy sun-dresses, and I haven’t seen them attracting too much negative attention. Mindsets are changing rapidly in India. There is a huge cultural difference that has emerged in just the past two years.
    The point I’m trying to make here is that there are some folks (and I’m referring to Indian folks here) who feel out of place in traditional Indian outfits like saris and salwars. A lot of Indian girls today are brought up in a very urban setting, and are often just plain uncomfortable in Indian clothes. Yet there are Indians who would not dare to don even a pair of jeans and prefer to stick to salwar kameezes and saris all their life. Again I have seen a lot of girls who are quite comfortable in tube tops and miniskirts. And then there are the girls who carry off all outfits with panache.
    But then again, this is a regional observation. In the more cosmopolitan cities, the acceptance and equality women enjoy is more. I’m not quite as comfortable in skirts in Chennai as I am in Bangalore. I’m sure things only get worse when you move to smaller cities, towns and villages. Also, western outfits are a lot more acceptable in regions that are tourist hotspots, or perhaps previously colonized by European countries- leading to a large Anglo-Indian population. Goa, for instance is a fairly easy-going state when it comes to attire. Similarly, I do not know if you’ve visited the north-east, but the women of the region are extremely stylish and are comfortable in all sorts of clothes. The way they carry off their clothes is just amazing.
    I’m seeing the length of my comment and I realize that maybe I should do a post on the subject myself. 😐 Great post, Angela! 🙂

    • Holy Cow, M-Girl, that was a blog post in itself but you know I love it! And you are right, there is a huge diversity between cities and rural/urban India. I’m surprised about the fact that you only wear a sari for special occassions but often wear kurtas, etc. I hadn’t really considered the mix-and-match diversity that could exist but it does make perfect sense. The fusion life of traditional versus modern, like yours … with a woman taking ownership of who and when she’ll marry, taking career over traditional duties, etc etc … you would have a new style to go with that new YOU, wouldn’t you? I love it. And as always, thanks for contributing to the conversation. Hope all is wonderful in your world xo

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  9. Hi Angela, I entirely agree with your point of view in the article, and even feel sorry for your daughter. I, for one, am a strong proponent of men and women wearing whatever they feel like wearing wherever / whenever. I think the problem that men in India face is that of exposure – they lack it. Our movies sometimes include scantily clad women for the sake of it, rather than for the need. The ground reality however is that unless men who whistle / drool / make provocative comments / grope are punished with stringent punishments, this wont stop. In the long run however, what will matter is how people are brought up. With colleges in india that ensure that boys and girls are made to sit separately in class, the future seems bleak.

    • Thanks for adding to the conversation. It’s a funny thing, cultural differences. I’m sure that many Indians would be shocked to hell if they were instantly transported to the beaches of Brazil or Hawaii or France. As much as it is a shock and uncomfortable for me to have to cover up, it would be a natural shock for them to feel discomfort and embarrassment if they were to uncover a bit 🙂 We don’t have a problem when we are out in our “normal” social scene here because that is typically 5 star hotels, trendy restaurants and clubs … it’s just getting from home to office or out in town on the streets that gets us into trouble if we dress ‘normal’ for us 😉

  10. what the hell is a half sari ? .. i never heard this term ever …

    • I made that up 🙂  Was thinking along the lines of skirt vs. mini-skirt … sari vs half-sari or mini-sari 😉

  11. I live in Bahrain, in the Middle East where the “rights”are also very different, not only in dress code, but all things.
    because “men” are different.
    I have two teenagers, who live their lives as close to western life style as possible, and I cringe when I think they are disrespecting the local culture, or even worse, they are getting themsleves into unnecessary risk.
    here 50% of the population is expat, so big groups of kids move around in mini skirts, short shorts and all sorts of skimpy clothes.
    And I find myself very divided between what to preach to them!

    I am always wearing respectful clothes in Bahrain. No shoulders, no legs, no this, no that… but i do not inforce it on my girls. And they do not feel forced bu their sorounds either.

  12. It is very unfair to post without knowing the things so closely, in south india we wear lungi ( only by elderly people after reaching certain age), it is a kind of tradition, like the tradition in other countries, double standard is an impolite way of mockery on our tradition, my suggestion would be kindly check before posting try asking people around, why are they wearing it, I do ask people in europe “hey what is that”

    Please kindly ask people get information before posting them.

    sincerely
    south indian

    • Actually, my driver Shiva helped me write that one and gave it the seal of approval 🙂  Where did I write an error?  I’m happy to improve the article and correct my errors … {just a side note, it is not only the elderly who wear lungi – I’m quite surprised to read this in your comment and curious why you believe that?} cheers, Anglea

      • I dont believe it, it is just the way it is “like traditional dresses in europe i ask people around mein europe”, i travelled all parts of india so i can say it authentically as i lived in rural, town, city in INDIA, i am from south india and i am proud of it for not being north indian,
        i cannot add my name as i want to keep it in anonymous way not like a sterotype indian, as this would show up people searching with my name in google search results.
        It is more silly of you, it is like knowing about a city by asking about lisboa by staying in porto.
        INDIA is like a mini europe, we are divided by language as you know that, in south india our cooking style is also different from region to region.
        As we follow different dress standards in different regions
        You should ask atleast three like young, middle-aged, old-aged (male or femlae or trans).

        PS: i dont recieve any email notification that is strange.

        • Sorry, I’m still not really sure what part of the “double standard” focus of this article that you have an issue with but thanks for commenting.  The whole point is to open up the conversation about women’s equality …  🙂  {{I don’t really appreciate you calling me a liar, so please do try to make that your only comment of that nature….}} Cheers, have a great evening – Angela

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