Monday, July 23, 2012

Lawyers' fashion debate exposes inequities in India

(My thanks to IntLawGrrls for the opportunity to contribute this introductory post)

Woman in a kurta, center; at right, in a sari ((c) Kelly Wegel)
NEW DELHI – I am here for 5 weeks, interning at Priti Suri and Associates, a small corporate law firm. I draft memos, conduct research for clients and for presentations, and work on a variety of projects involving American and Indian companies. I also sweat, eat, sweat, take pictures, and sweat. The high my first week here was about 42 degrees Celsius, or 107-108 Fahrenheit.
Thankfully, a friend introduced me to kurtas and kurtis, long, breathable, tunics worn with leggings. They are perfect for the Delhi heat, since they absorb all the sweat, come in many colors and patterns, and look great on people of all sizes.
The kurtas, along with the more formal saris, are also a point of contention among people here.
I encountered the topic at conference sponsored by SOWL, the Society of Women Lawyers-India, earlier this month. As described in this article, a panel topic was “Innovative Strategies for the Retention of Women Lawyers,” with the focus on maternity leave and Indian society’s traditional notions of the woman as the primary caregiver. These notions clash with the Western notions of a lawyer as a working machine.
The debate quickly turned to clothing, however.
Some lawyers, mostly women in their 50s and 60s, voiced criticism over young women’s makeup choices in court. If you wear too much, it distracts from your arguments, they said. Men and the judge will think you are only looking for a husband, or they will think you would rather spend time on your appearance than on your clients. (There has been no jury system in India since 1960, but litigators appear before a judge in a formal court setting.)
The younger women shot back – why does it matter? All lawyers have to wear calf-length black gowns over their clothes in court anyway, along with a white bib. We respect those rules. We are smart, talented, win cases, and bill at $500 an hour, why judge us on anything else?
Because that’s the way it is, the older women explained. Things won’t change anytime soon, and we have worked hard to get what little ground we have, don’t lose it by being frivolous. One woman said loudly:
'If women don’t have a sari or long pants on under the gown, then the gown shows their ankles, and it looks like they have nothing on underneath.'
I was floored. Ankles? I knew before coming here that India had a strong British influence, but I didn’t expect it to be so Victorian.
The older women’s opinions on Western attire and makeup come not just from the traditions in India, but also from the knowledge, and maybe even experience, of the sexual violence and harassment that is prevalent here.

The Times of India has reported that 507 women were raped and 601 were molested in New Delhi in 2010. Those are merely the reported cases. I could not find solid figures for the percentages of rapes that go unreported, but there seems to be a very large stigma against reporting due, in part, to a blame-the-victim mentality.
By way of example, a few months ago V. Dinesh Reddy, the Andhra Pradesh director general of police, asserted that women’s fashion choices were mainly to blame for the rise in rapes, with fashionable women being more at risk. This mentality was echoed in a news weekly's April 2012 investigation into the Delhi area police force. According to the report, about half the police interviewed took some sort of stance that rape was either the victim’s fault or was not a real crime to begin with. In their view, the victim is to blame, for dressing fashionably or in a Western style, visiting pubs, or working alongside men.
In response, India has taken some actions, though I am not sure they are the right ones:
► There are separate metro cars for women and children, due to what a friend here called “ass pinching” but what is commonly referred to as “Eve teasing,” to groping or pinching women, to flashing them, or giving them long, intimidating stares.
► Some colleges and universities have banned or are planning to ban jeans, tight clothing, or high heels on their campuses, saying it will cut down on incidents of harassment.
►  In the late 1980s, India passed the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, which prohibits indecent (in other words, naked) representation of women through advertisements or in publications, writings, paintings, figures, or in any other manner. Possessing or distributing pornography is illegal.
These solutions are aimed at controlling the actions of the victim rather than the attacker.
Delhi seems to be trying to protect women without fixing the real problem – a society that does not value females as much as males. Women are only 48.5% of the general population of India, due mostly to sex-selective abortions. (Prior IntLawGrrls post.) Despite popular beliefs, many Indian women do work, but often for much less pay than men, especially in rural areas. In 2011, women earned about 62% of men’s salary for equal work. In 2010, the U.S. income gap was about 81%.
Hopefully I heard the voice of change in that conference room: young women standing up and demanding to be judged by their work alone, and young men supporting them, saying they are proud to work for female bosses and with female judges. It will take a large shift in the Indian mindset to close the gender gap, but, based on the attitudes expressed by the young lawyers at the conference, it has already begun.