Covering for my Culture

Swetha Das struggles to reconcile her values with her culture’s.

After climbing 3600 steps to the summit of the Tirupati Balaji Temple in South India, my aunt and her husband were stopped at the main entrance by the temple’s volunteers. Sweating in her pants and long sleeved churidhar-top, my aunt was informed that she was not allowed to enter because she did not have a shawl. While her husband wore only a lungi-skirt and shirt, her full attire was not modest enough to allow her to pray to the same God.

The double standards applied to women in East Asian countries are ineffable. Within the very foundations of customs and culture lie archaic restrictions on women that have remained within society.

Recently, a 20 year old Indian woman made headlines internationally for dragging a man, who had molested her, to a police station. Pradnya Mandhare’s actions and attitude undermined India’s classic narrative of female victimhood, and it is this subversion that has captured the media’s attention.

Unnecessary conventions have persisted due to their place in a culture that demands respect for long standing tradition. As a female who is both a product of a progressive western institutional education system and a conservative Indian upbringing, I have developed an internalised struggle between respecting my own values and my culture’s values.

Centuries old rituals and ideologies are too deeply ingrained within society to amend, and it has often become easier to conform than to seek change. I find myself spouting rants on equality and need for change at university, while subserviently listening to my grandmother bluster through another lecture about the necessity for women to tie up their hair in the evening to avoid dirtying the house.

Maybe conformity is just easier? Perhaps, but it’s also debilitating. There isn’t immediate progress when the radicals take the easy road. Is it only when a confident woman drags a man by his hair that we reflect upon our perceptions of the strength and independence of women today? It’s become too comfortable to overlook the realities of inequality concealed within our traditional beliefs.

Even after my aunt climbed those 3600 steps, sweating for her religion, she was startled that her modest clothing was still inadequate for the temple. Whether it was a compromise or innovation, instead of arguing, she simply took one of her husband’s shirts and draped it over her chest like a shawl.

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