In a land of salwar kameez and sarees, a young Mongoloid damsel walking around the streets in her shorts with a flip-flop and a fringe cut is almost looked down as someone who has defied all moral sanctity.

If clothes don't make a man, why do women from the northeast in their short skirts raise so many eyebrows? They often seem to bear the brunt for not adhering to the Indian standard cultural norms of an ideal woman's clothing. Those spotted with short skirts and sleeveless dress are quickly branded hussies. If this is the yardstick, moral values would entail nothing more than a few more yards of clothes draped around a woman's body. A fully clothed woman is neither the moral custodian nor epitome of society. The question is, should one be demonised based on one's attire?

It is only a matter of cultural ignorance that women from the northeast are often accused of encouraging promiscuity. An insight into the northeastern culture would unveil that the society is equally conservative and traditional like elsewhere in India. All the northeastern States have a very rich culture and each is represented by its very own intricate traditional attires: Innaphi (Manipur), Eking (Meghalaya), Puan (Mizoram) Rina (Tripura), Naga shawls (Nagaland) Mekhala and Chadar (Assam).

Unlike in mainland India, traditional dresses in the urban northeast are not an everyday wardrobe like a saree or salwar kameez. They are worn elegantly on festive occasions, with the exception of Mekhala or Phanek (wrap-around), which are mostly worn by women across the region. A testimony to the vibrancy of the northeast culture is the Hornbill festival held annually in Nagaland.

Being predominantly Mongoloid inhabited, the northeast has a strong allegiance to other Mongoloid culture. The strongest of all cultural influences has been the Korean culture. Over the last couple of years, the Korean fad has been creating a bandwagon effect among youth in these States. Style is something very inherent in the culture; adoption of the Korean hairstyle or clothing is common in the region. Short skirts are clothes that women wear to workplaces or even to congregations like Sunday churches. So, a man getting excited on seeing the display of few more inches of a woman's skin in mainland India is quite an unknown phenomenon in the northeast.

Even when they step outside their region, the women carry the style element with them gracefully and comfortably. But due to the stark cultural difference in mainland India, there is often an indisposition to accepting them, especially the northeast women living in metropolitan cities.

On the other hand, these women have a cultural shock when they come to metropolitan cities; they are constantly harassed because of their distinctive Mongoloid features, additionally fuelled by their choice of attire. In a land of salwar kameez and sarees, a young Mongoloid damsel walking around the streets in her shorts with a flip-flop and a fringe cut is almost looked down as someone who has defied all moral sanctity. But if we are a country that takes pride in being multicultural and multiracial, who actually is a cultural misfit is a question that looms at large.

If we take a closer look at what makes some women intentionally dress up as glam dolls, giving ultra exposure to their body, it would reveal that it has nothing much to do with any region-specific culture. It is rather more of a social norm that when one is away from the safeguards of home, one often tends to exert one's subjugated independence. This holds true for both men and women, irrespective of their regional and cultural background.

According to research findings, around 66 per cent of people in the northeast migrate to other parts of India for higher studies and 30 per cent for employment. With the increasing exodus, the northeastern woman's short skirt could very well be seen through a lens other than racial. Much stands common between a northeast girl's skimpy skirts, a Sikh youth's spiked hair or a Brahmin yuppie's fascination for beef or pork.

These could very well be symbols of rebellion against the values they have grown up with, but never believed in the discovery of their selves which might have been hiding somewhere for fear of their daddy's heavy hand. They are aspirations and expressions which failed to take wing back home; or, for that matter, they could symbolise anything at all but what they surely do not symbolise is that the pretty lady in hot pants is hooking around just because she is wearing hot pants.

What is questionable is the outlook of people who, on the pretext of morality, prowl around in dark, empty streets to pounce on vulnerable women. Had casing the northeast woman in the whole nine yards been the solution, then perhaps a law to that effect could have been implemented. But such a suggestive code of conduct could only mean the end of any progressive society. What is required is the taming of social bestiality of racial discrimination and not penalisation of the women of the northeast for falling short of a few inches of their skirts and sleeves.

What is nudity and not socially acceptable is not the bare skin of these women but the exhibition of vulgar virility in mainland India. The machismo is manifested in the eagerness to grope these women knowing that they are immigrant-outsiders, less resourceful and easy prey. If caught in the act, it's easy; you can always get away by saying kapadey hi aise pehentay hai ye chinki ladkiya (These girls with small eyes wear such sort of dress).

What you wear is a matter of personal choice; it cannot be a social dictum. The length of a woman's skirt cannot be the foundation for society's moral values.

(The writer is Senior Manager, Communications, Sambodhi Research and Communications. Email: rebika.laishram@gmail.com)

Keywords: women's dress

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