Clothes are a lot more than just articles covering our bodies. They are a state of mind, an emotion, a memory, a revelation and a disguise stitched together that we wear over our skin for the world to see. They are often an open declaration of who we are supposed to be and not of who we truly are. How can we be expected to dress alike when each one of us has a different story to tell? Every time we put on a uniform, we get ready to go to war with ourselves because we also put away a part of ourselves during the process of ‘fitting in’.
I grew up in a North Indian Muslim household where stepping out of the house without a dupatta (that somehow always felt like a phansi ka phanda) was a punishable offence that resulted in passive aggressive one word conversations, plentiful household chores, social isolation, pitiful glances, along with the classic silent treatment that lasted for a month or so. How dare she wear her own identity and not the one passed on for generations in the family? For someone who loved picking out her own clothes as a child, clothes became a nightmare as they were a means for others to repress my freedom of expression.
I began to abhor family gatherings in particular, where a woman without a dupatta would be practically considered naked, and if, God forbid, she happened to wear a top without sleeves (the most controversial of them all), then she is dead meat and socially isolated for the rest of her life. I was not allowed to meet people unless I was dressed in a way that I was expected to, and every inch of my body was open for public scrutiny and sexualised just because I was a girl.
Expressing myself through what I wore was hard to come by early in my life. I began to doubt my choices, myself, I shied away from compliments thinking I was unworthy of them and avoided anxiety-inducing social gatherings where I would be constantly bracing myself for a jibe at my self-esteem. I was not entirely ashamed of my body (even if I was made to act like I was), but that itself was a matter of shame somehow, because hiding my womanhood with extra clothing was the norm and I was an anomaly in that world. Whenever I would see women clad in burqa, I would often ask them if their clothing was their choice to which they would always respond in the affirmative. But it was hard to believe them like it was hard to believe my mother who would say that I could wear whatever I want, but only once I am married.
Slowly, this society gave birth to many women like us, stripped us of our confidence, our personalities, and dressed us in uniforms and dumped us in boxes with labels. We were made to wear our uniforms (salwar kameez) when all we wanted was that pink skirt we had secretly bought online with that floral print crop top or those denim hot pants or that summer dress, all of them now catching dust in the closet along with our identities. Freedom through self expression is a crucial part of our existence, for women especially, because we have been denied that basic human right throughout our lives.
I noticed stark changes in my clothing style during the pandemic when I could only dress up for myself. I started wearing loud colors, printed clothes, silver shoes and popping eyeshadow matching the color of my outfit, whereas life before the pandemic was usually spent in the shadows of black, grey, beige or white. I also realised that buying ready made clothes hampered my creative abilities, and so I turned back to the old tradition of buying unstitched cloth and getting clothes made as per my own design preferences. I began to find ways to make more decisions on my own, just so that I could wear my own story (and not my family’s insecurities) on my skin. And finally, I mustered the courage to say no to dupatta and added – ‘wear a sleeveless top at a family gathering’ to my bucket list.
Diversity is the essence of humanity. Then why is our society so scared of it? Because we’re letting societies define who we are as individuals when it’s our individuality that helps build a society. At the end of the day, we are all humans and none of us are alike, so stop telling your children and women to dress a certain way, stop trying to fit them into a world where they are clearly not respected, instead help them discover their own style, their own voice and eventually, a society that not only accepts them but the one that they can accept too. We as humans have a responsibility to help each other just be ourselves and to respect each other’s differences every step of the way. Expressing ourselves is a basic human right that none of us should ever be deprived of. And it shouldn’t take us another pandemic to say ‘No!’ to what we don’t like.
A social impact researcher by profession, Saman is also an artist at heart who likes to spend her time creating. She finds much joy in making polymer clay earrings, painting, composing songs, clicking pictures and hiking. She cares deeply about social justice issues, so she started conducting art workshops to empower the marginalized communities of India and started an art movement called ‘Awaaz Do!’. She is a true blahcksheep as she likes to live her life her own way, even if it does not align with societal norms. She believes life is best lived when explored with no plans in mind and no other person to impress but oneself.