Since last Thursday, protests over women’s clothing have taken place at four major educational institutions, namely University of Dhaka, Jagannath University, Islamic University and North-South University. One slogan goes so far as to say, “Women who destroy national culture by adapting a Western way of life are cultural terrorists.”
The causative agent behind these protests are some comments made by the High Court regarding a recent case where a 22-year-old girl was assaulted at Narsingdi railway station for wearing western clothes. At the bail hearing for one of the attackers, the court responded to a comment that defended the girl’s right to dress as she wished by stating, “Didn’t people the right to preserve their heritage, culture and traditions? Isn’t clothes part of the culture?” The students behind the protests express their gratitude to the High Court for acknowledging the sentiment.
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In a country where fundamentalism is on the rise and where most people already believe that a woman’s dress sense has a direct correlation to her moral character, it is extremely worrying that an entity such as the High Court is defending a abuser for cultural reasons. To add to that, the fact that these comments allow others to create more upheaval is downright chilling.
In addition to the slogans calling for the defense of “Bengali culture”, there are those which say things like “Your body, your choice. But you have no right to bother us”. Others read: “Stop trying to seduce people of the opposite sex by wearing skimpy clothes.”
The general assumption of these protesters seems to be that women dress only to appease the male gaze. They ignore the possibility that women dress in what they feel comfortable and/or beautiful in. This narcissism can be seen as a symptom of the misogyny that plagues our society.
These incidents also speak volumes about the protesters, who seem to be reducing their self-control to be at the mercy of women’s clothing.
Education Minister Dr Dipu Moni said of the incident: “When the world moves forward, society moves forward; now we are going to talk about robotics, we are going to talk about artificial intelligence. This is not no time to talk about the duration of women’s dresses.”
She is not wrong to say that we need science to move forward. However, her rejection of the need to talk about women’s clothing cannot go unnoticed. Our education does not only exist to teach us science, it must also teach students morals, ethics and principles. We cannot simply advance technologically and fall behind in learning what is acceptable and what is not.
More often than not, we like to blame lack of education and accessibility to information for the absence of progressive thinking in individuals. However, the people protesting are educated students from respected institutions. It makes you wonder why education has failed to make them understand that they have no right to question the clothing of others.
Men in our society are privileged and for them, equal expression through clothing is a threat to that privilege. Despite this, what is worrying is that female students also participated in these demonstrations. They suffer endless discrimination and yet they support a cause that tries to deprive them of their autonomy.
It is a person’s basic human and constitutional right to have the freedom to make personal choices, which includes their preferences about what they wear or don’t wear. Dictating what someone else wears isn’t something people should even talk about. Moreover, the cultural climate is constantly changing and it is futile to try to cling to a dying culture.
Some might argue that the number of students protesting is very small and that the incident is not big enough to elicit the reaction it does. However, as a woman living in this country, the incident seems important to me. Small incidents like this point to a bigger problem rooted deep in our society.