Photo courtesy of Amazonia

Recently an attempt to prompt Sri Lanka forward into the 21st century was stymied.

On November 21 some female school teachers posted photographs of themselves on social media dressed in their interpretation of the “appropriate and modest attire” in which they preferred to teach their classes.

This apparently simple and straightforward action caused a great deal of controversy and comment which illuminated the attitudes of many sectors of society. It had been suggested as an alternative to the traditional dress of the saree worn by most female teachers in the country. This innovation was put forward in accordance with the suggestion that public servants should be able to dress in less cumbersome clothes in the workplace but teachers were quite rapidly declared to be in a category to which this liberating principle did not apply.

The saree has been called “a magical unstitched garment” by Rta Kapur Chishti and is a glorious piece of clothing with a rich history. It can be worn in a myriad modes and styles. There are a variety of different textiles from which it can be made: cotton and nylon and linen for everyday wear, plain or patterned, silk for special occasions and also highly ornate, lavishly decorated versions, bejewelled and sumptuous for those once in a lifetime very special occasions.

Some sarees are worn to display the textiles themselves, some to display the beauty of the person wearing it – see through or cutaway material accompanied by tight fitting blouses are worn by some ladies with modern sleeveless and halter neck designs which expose their arms and entire upper backs. Some ladies in Colombo high society do not seem to be wearing blouses with their sarees at all!

Professionally trained school teachers of course do not generally wear such revealing garments to teach school classes. The focus of the school students should be on the content of the course materials, rather than the faces and figures, the cleavage, the hair and makeup, the accessories and even the personalities of their instructors. Women are often accused in patriarchal societies of behaving like sirens and shamed for provocative self-presentation. This sociocultural incident in which a wish to grant choice to working women in their everyday lives is sandbagged, is a good example of the way clothes and appearance are used to attempt to shame and silence women.

That said, from an outsider’s viewpoint, it is a pleasure to see the beautifully dressed ladies in their vibrant and colourful flowing fabrics against a sombre and sober backdrop of men in dark suits and white shirts in corporate settings, group photographs or in legal proceedings, in this country. The beauty and colour which the garments of professional women showcase seem to diminish the fact that there are so few of them in number, statistically, in comparison to men in the higher echelons of professional spheres.

In fact, the whole recent furore, which some call Saree Gate, and its rapid emergence and suppression, seems to have turned a serious social issue into an item of trivia, a form of hoopla which made the control and surveillance of the conduct of women via an enforced dress code seem like a minor distraction.

The saree itself is six yards of cloth. That is a lot of material to wear in a humid, tropical climate and the wearer is further encumbered by the need to wear a long petticoat or underskirt underneath the saree and being in danger of tripping on its pleats. When running for a bus, trying to navigate sudden rainstorms or weather events or move with any degree of ease and mobility up or down uneven sets of steps, sarees are a real hindrance to the wearer.

It is impossible to walk in anything but a sedate way or to run or jump in a saree unless it is hitched up. On the plus side, because of their intricate drapery and the relative immobility this necessitates, sarees confer elegance and dignity on the wearer.

Sarees can also be useful and practical. They pack flat and so are a godsend to the stressed luggage packer when travelling. One made to measure blouse can be matched with many different sarees. And they can make effective improvised curtains or temporary screens when needed. Repurposed, they can provide material for dresses, scarves, caftans, bags and cushions. Thus a beautiful piece of material can be appreciated over a lifetime. In fact, many young ladies are gifted sarees from their grandmothers and great grandmothers as heirloom pieces.

It is a fact that, during periods of austerity, some families used sarees as bed linen in lieu of sheets. And in 2022, during one of the most severe ongoing economic crises in this country, many female teachers now cannot afford to buy new sarees or pay tailors to make new saree blouses and petticoats. Skirts, blouses, trousers and shirts are less fragile and more durable.

In an intensely poetic iteration in the famous Indian epic, The Mahabharata, the Princess Draupadi is saved from public humiliation by the saree she is wearing. Dragged in front of a large assembly and threatened with public disrobing, she prays for relief from Lord Darma, who sees her purity of heart and distress, and grants her wish making the yards of cloth she is wearing seem endlessly self-renewing:

“Then Draupadi, resplendent still in her beauty, covered her face, crying aloud, “O Darma, lord of justice, protector of the virtuous, save me, who am suffering here!’ And the illustrious Darma heard her and covered her with beautiful garments of many colours. As one garment was pulled from her body, another appeared, covering her, until many robes of different colours were heaped up in that assembly and her would-be humiliator, tired and ashamed, sat down.” (From ‘The Five Brothers’ adapted in English by Elizabeth Seeger).

We first heard this story as children. Of course we called it The Never Ending Saree.

More close to home and in our own contemporary era, one of the lively protagonists in Nadishka Aloysius’s recent mystery novel, Body In A Paddy Field, makes her attitude to the enforced wearing of saree for teachers in a school setting very clear:

“Being forced to encase yourself in six yards of cloth… I’d much rather be wrapped in a shroud!’ she tells her friend in a frank outburst. Her dislike of the garment is due to its excess yardage: ‘Someone who has never worn a saree may wonder where all the cloth goes. Well, much of it goes into the pleats… Yards and yards of pleats… We needed some large pins to keep the pleats in place… Who would have guessed that grown women would depend on nappy pins to keep their clothes up?”

There is no better portrait of how these clothing restrictions and constrictions operate to infantilise professional women. Industrial strength nappy pins, according to Aloysius’s protagonist, need to be attached to hold the saree in place as the alternative, trusting to one’s posture and shoulder blades, results in a lot of loose chiffon continually flying in the breeze. This looks good in a film or in a photo shoot but really gets in one’s way in daily life.

Obviously, an unadorned, longish skirt or trousers and a blouse or shirt with a coat for more formal events would be preferable as a choice of working attire for many women who are seeking to actually be productive and efficient in the workplace rather than feeling solely ornamental and being objectified as being merely pleasing to the eye.

The attitudes towards more simple and efficient workplace dress codes have been conflated with “Westernisation” of cultural values and this has been used by many traditionalists to prompt the airing of negative attitudes towards the liberation of women in general. Women – especially those teaching young people – should, according to Sri Lankan traditionalists, be exemplars of conservative social values: modest, soft spoken, gentle, restrained.

Some people object to women wearing makeup to enhance their facial features; some object to them cutting their hair short or colouring it; some to them having tattoos or facial jewellery; and some to them wearing their hair loose. Clothing is a form of self-expression and also a pleasure. People should have the right to choose appropriate attire in their professional life. To dictate and enforce what they can and cannot wear denies them the dignity of freedom of personal choice in their everyday life.

Men’s conduct and appearance are not comparably policed. In fact, men in contrast are granted very noticeable freedoms in their dress and conduct. And the freedoms granted them are more often abused. Gender parity and a focus on professionalism and objectivity would enable everyone to focus on the work they are doing and on the quantity and quality of the work instead of half the population being subjected to the unnecessary intrusiveness and enforcement of double standards currently evident in this sphere.

Dr. Tara De Mel makes the point in an interview in The Morning that she finds the furore unnecessary. “I really don’t know why there is an ‘uproar’ or why there should be a  ‘dress code’ for teachers or any public servant… Shouldn’t it be a personal choice of the wearer? As long as it is respectable and appropriate for the profession.”

It is a pity that this free falling garment, a beautiful emblem of national pride, the wearing of which is a rite of passage for many young girls and fabulous in the right place and the right time is being used in 2022 to fetter the freedoms of professional women and diminish their right to self-regulation.

This article appears in Ceylon Today.