‘I’ column - Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala

... on how sexual rights affect one personally, and how they are affirmed and/or violated in one's local cultural setting. 

Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala I have never enjoyed attending weddings for as long as I can remember. In fact the thought of having to go for one would torment me for weeks, from the moment I received the invitation until the end of the function. 

This is largely due to the fact that one is always expected to wear ‘appropriate’ clothing for such occasions. Of course, the definition of ‘appropriate’ clothing differs from region to region. In my case, as a woman from South Asia, ‘appropriate’ clothing often meant, not only being bundled up in six yards of cloth (a sari) or being draped in a shimmering, glittering Shalwar Kameez or Ghagra Choli, but also being forced to wear hideous jewelry and layers of make-up, which for me was nothing but absolute torture. 

I recall wearing a sari for the first time when I was 18 years old. The occasion: a friend’s wedding. My mother insisted that a sari would be the most ‘appropriate’ dress. However, being stubborn I kicked up such a fuss that my mother had to drape the sari three times for me before I was packed off for the wedding. By the time I reached the venue of the wedding, knowing that I was rather late, I ran up the stairs, not realising that one needed to lift the front pleats of the sari before attempting to run. Before I knew it I had tripped on my sari and was flat on my face. Quickly picking myself up I walked into the banquet hall only to find the newly wedded couple on their way out. The wedding ceremony was over, the dinner had been consumed and the guests were leaving. That was probably the shortest wedding I ever attended. Ever since then I have avoided weddings as much as possible. 

The point I’m trying to make is that every one of us has a right to dress in whatever clothing we feel confident and comfortable in. However, due to various reasons, many of us often dress in ways that are expected of us, in a bid to please others. The social conditioning process is so strong that most of us either consciously or unconsciously, wear clothes that we are expected to wear, as men and women.

As a child I was often called a tomboy not only because I was permanently scaling all the coconut trees in the garden but also because I was always in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. As an adult woman, I continue to face a number of comments such as – ‘O dear! You look like a little schoolboy!’, or, ‘So, are you a boy or a girl?’ – simply because I’ve got short hair and refuse to wear stereotypically feminine clothing. However, I know that I have a right to dress as I choose, in a manner that is my style, and fitting the occasion. The old cliché ‘Clothes Maketh the Man’ needs to be reviewed in the light of present understandings of sexuality and gender. Thus while I agree that appearances do count a lot, I would rather choose to appear confident and comfortable. 

Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala works as Legal and Policy Reform Program Officer at the Women and Media Collective, a Colombo-based organization that works towards promoting women’s rights in Sri Lanka. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature from Miranda House, Delhi University and is currently reading for her Masters in Women’s Studies at the University of Colombo.