KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 10 — The traditional saree that some conservatives consider to be revealing is an ancient norm of the Indian civilisation, explained a women's rights activist today.
After reported threats by a vigilante group to spray-paint women dressed “inappropriately” for Thaipusam, Sivananthi Thanenthiran, the executive director at the Asian-Pacific Resource & Research Centre for Women (ARROW), authored a Facebook post explaining the evolution of the saree.
In her post, Sivananthi wrote that the “appropriate” version of the traditional Indian dress, which covered most of the wearer's upper torso, was not part of the original attire, but instead introduced to appease the sensitivities of India's former colonial masters.
To illustrate her point, Sivananthi appended a photograph of her great-great-grandmother, in which the latter wore a saree that exposed her shoulder and entire arm.
“The saree blouse along with the petticoat was a Victorian invention, as the colonists found the saree too revealing for their tastes.
“So in fact, it is the blouse and the petticoat which are the 'modern' trends in wearing the saree and that bare skin was the ancient norm,” she added.
Queen Victoria had been Empress of India until her death in 1901. Her reign was characterised by its emphasis on morality and family values, believed to be in response to the sexual scandals that were commonly linked to previous British monarchs.
The activist with the NGO that promotes women's sexual and reproductive rights then questioned the apparent outrage over the traditional saree, saying it was an indictment of the complainants rather than the wearers.
Ancient cultures had been able to function normally even when women wore sarees that exposed much of their upper torso, she pointed out when noting that the “sexualisation” was a construct of modern society and its consumerist trend.
Aside from fashion, she noted that such developments have also made it socially unacceptable for mothers to perform such a natural task as nursing their children due to how breasts have become perceived as enticing to men.
“So if men and women want to safeguard culture perhaps the best way to do it is to respect bodies, the differences in bodies, and the different functions and purposes of bodies.
“Just as my great great grandmother was free and safe to drive her bullock cart everywhere in her little town without a man, and without in her case ― a saree blouse!” she added.
According to a report on British news outlet BBC, the traditional saree that exposes the shoulder, arms, back and lower abdomen trace back as far as at least the Maury and Sunga periods in 300BC.
The piece also supported Sivananthi's explanation on the relative modernity of the “appropriate” saree, placing it around the Victorian era and noting that both terms ― “blouse” and “petticoat” ― were English in origin.
Police are currently investigating a Facebook group named the “Thaipusam Spraying Group”, whose members are threatening to attack women wearing sarees that they deem “inappropriate”.
The group was created by a user with the screen name “Henry Barnabas” and has over 100 members.
The Hindu festival of Thaipusam will be celebrated on February 9 this year.