What A Woman Wears (Or Doesn’t) Is No One’s Business

Emma Watson is under fire. Or rather, her breasts are. After posing for Vanity Fair in a knitted white bolero, which offered a generous view of her bosom, miffed feminists are using social media to call her out as a hypocrite for being the active voice of the ‘HeforShe’ campaign that exemplifies the message of gender equality while simultaneously being okay with baring her body for a magazine.

It began with British radio commentator Julia Hartley-Brewer tweeting…

In response, renowned feminist Gloria Steinem came out strongly defending Watson and every other woman’s wardrobe choice with the statement, “Feminists can wear anything they f*%king want.” Watson herself reacted to the cacophony with the response, “Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with. It’s about freedom. It’s about liberation. It’s about equality. It’s not – I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it.”

On the other side of the spectrum is Gigi Hadid, criticised for appearing on the cover of the first edition of Vogue Arabia in a jeweled veil. Hadid innocently posted on Instagram about how proud she feels to have been a part of an experience that helped her embrace her half-Palestinian heritage.

Critics, mostly very annoyed women, began their bombardment, soon after. And it was shocking to observe the sort of expectations people had of this 21-year old model: Why hasn’t she used her Palestinian voice to express political opinions? How is it that regular women are judged for wearing the hijab and she gets away with donning it as a glamorous fashion accessory? At the core of the anger lies the intention to use Hadid’s act as a bandwagon to strap on the angst felt by the Muslim community in the global perception of the hijab as a form of oppression.

Both cases have sparked off debates: Can you ‘objectify’ yourself and still be a feminist? Can you be a feminist and indulge in “anti-feminist” acts as part of your career or personal preferences? How does being sexual, and strong and smart go hand-in-hand for a woman? And so on and so forth.

Hadid and Watson are young women who have just begun their journey towards discovering what it means to be an empowered woman in a society that is quick and eager to judge. Whether they did the right thing is not up to us to decide; in fact doing so defies the basic premise of feminism – that we do not need to have our choices validated.

My own mother was always conservative when it came to clothing. Skirts showing too much thigh, tank tops and snug dresses were not allowed. “The world doesn’t need to know you’re a woman,” she’d tell me angrily and make me change if I wore something inappropriate by her standards. I found my own ways to beat her rules; sneaking out alternative outfits in a massive handbag, stashing shopping bags at a friend’s place. It felt so liberating, like I’d fought a dictator and won the right to wear a halter top.

I used to think the world has come a long way from the time my mother grew up and learnt her values. But I’m realising that liberation is more than being allowed to choose. As if it isn’t hard enough defining ourselves as women, now we need to have an additional probe that ensures all our actions are consistent with the set beliefs that come with the ‘feminism’ package.

It’s time we stop obsessing about what it means if one woman covers her hair and another dons a miniskirt. We’re all different shapes and sizes and experience varying levels of self-assuredness, growing up in a multicultural world. If we want our voices heard, we have to be tolerant and pick our battles wisely. Clothing, or the lack thereof, is definitely not on top of the list of what needs change for us.

Sangeetha Bhaskaran is an intern with Youth Ki Awaaz for the batch of February-March 2017.