What Should Women Wear in India?

by Sharell शारेल on January 5, 2012

in Adjusting to India, Culture Shock in India

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One of the questions I often get asked over at my India travel site by women coming to India is, “How to dress?”. In this suggested packing list, I advise that it’s a good idea to keep legs and shoulders covered. I also mention that cities such as Mumbai and Delhi are fast becoming very westernised (this post shows just how westernised), and you’ll see people wearing jeans and t-shirts. However, in smaller cities and villages, people still dress conservatively.

One Indian reader responded and said that these days, even in smaller towns and villages women and girls wear jeans, t-shirts, pants, sleeveless dresses, and skirts.

That maybe so, but is it a good idea to dress in such a manner, or does it invite trouble?

Once again, there has been quite an uproar about women’s dress standards in India, this time prompted by a number of remarks made by people in positions of power.

The remark that first stirred the pot came from the director of police in Andhra Pradesh, V Dinesh Reddy, in regards to why the police had failed to stem the rising number of rapes (shockingly, more than three a day in 2011) and murder. He blamed women for dressing provocatively by wearing “flimsy and fashionable” dresses, and claimed that police had no control over these rapes.

Reddy referred to his experience in his village where, he said, women wore dresses that covered their entire body. “Now, wealth has increased, corporate styles have seeped into the villages bringing in liquor and other cosmopolitan cultures. These modern women are more vulnerable to rapes.”

Two days later the remark was followed up by a statement from the Minister of Women and Child Welfare in Karnataka, CC Patil, who said, “I personally don’t favour women wearing provocative clothes and always feel they need to be dignified in whatever they wear.” He also said women should know how much skin they should cover.

These two comments came from men. However, a woman agreed with them. In response to the issue, KK Seetamma, head of a committee set up by Bangalore University to fight sexual harassment confirmed, “I’m against women wearing obscene clothes. With such clothes, they tempt men and that’s why they get raped. Even when one wears saris, long sleeve blouses must be worn. I tell my students they must wear long kurtas when they wear jeans…Many women lecturers in BU wear salwars and jeans, too. What respect can they expect from boys? Only a sari with long-sleeved blouses invokes respect for women teachers, nothing else.”

Yet, this is nothing new. In 2009, colleges Uttar Pradesh wanted to ban female students from wearing jeans and other Western clothes to halt sexual harassment by male classmates.

There was a huge backlash from female students who claimed the new rules punished innocent females rather than tackling the men who treated women badly.

In my view, this is a very difficult issue to address, and is only going to get worse as India progresses and becomes more westernised. Uncovered skin is like the proverbial forbidden fruit for many Indian men, and once revealed, it obviously provokes strong reactions in them and becomes very hard for them to resist. No doubt, it’s coupled with the perception, usually gained from watching western TV shows, that girls who show lots of skin are “easy”.

There is a huge reality gap though. Women who wear shorts and strapless tops in the west aren’t viewed as “easy”. Men have seen so many bare arms and legs that they’ve become desensitised to it. Sure, they may look at an attractive woman who’s wearing such clothes, but a bit of bare skin is hardly going to send them into a frenzy!

The fact that many women wear revealing clothes in Mumbai without incident is an indication of men’s changing mentalities in big cities. But what about the mentality of men in more rural areas, who don’t have any exposure to more liberated lifestyles?

As for me, I still prefer to dress on the side of conservative, particularly when I’m in other parts of India. I’m not going to needlessly fuel any man’s fantasy by showing my flesh. And, I’ll never forget my older sister in law’s shock and horror when I was shopping with her one day, and joked that I was going to buy a knee length skirt!

Photo credit: mckaysavage

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© Copyright 2012 Sharell शारेल, Diary of a White Indian Housewife 2008-2014. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy and reproduce text or images without permission.

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{ 144 comments… read them below or add one }

Manali February 4, 2014 at 6:41 pm

I just wanted to point out one thing. It’s true that covering legs or shoulders would keep you safe from a lot of unwanted attention ( though not completely). The culture here ideally does not force anything on anyone.
The choice of clothes for me has been influenced by the place I’ll be visiting or the type of people I’d be surrounded by. Because not only women but Indian men are expected to be dressed decently and not offend anyone around by their appearance.
It’s more about putting people around you at ease than avoiding male attention.


Shylie Sagar March 18, 2014 at 12:52 pm

Just wanted to thank you for this post. I am a white, American wife of an Indian man and we are making a trip to Delhi to see his family in two weeks. It will be my first trip to India and my first time meeting any of his family. The question of what to wear has been weighing heavily on my mind. I’ve asked my husband a few times to give me some tips on what I should pack, but haven’t gotten too many specific answers. (Other than “Cover everything! Including your blonde hair!”) :) So I found your blog to be very informative and helpful and just wanted to thank you for that!


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