YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Campus Dress Code Highlights Indian Age Gap

A top university's rules on what to wear have stirred debate on `moral policing' and sexism. They have also exposed a generational chasm.

September 25, 2006|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

CHENNAI, India — Arjun, a college senior with a wispy beard and forthright manner, breaks the rules just about every time he walks onto campus.

He doesn't have to say a thing, or act out in class, or pick a fight. He only has to do what comes naturally to him every morning: Pull on a pair of jeans.

That's enough to make him a habitual scofflaw here at Anna University, whose administrators have ordered students to toss out the T-shirts and jettison the jeans, at least on campus.

It's button-front shirts and slacks for the men, traditional Indian dress for the women -- and an unwanted spot of controversy for one of India's elite scientific institutions of higher learning, which quickly found its ban on informal and "provocative" attire under fire.

Women's groups labeled the dress code unfair and chauvinist, because female students were blamed for "distracting" men with their attire and had to wrap themselves up in traditional Indian style, while their male peers could continue wearing Western-type clothing.

Progressives branded the new rules as reactionary. Many students were indignant over what they felt was an insult to their intelligence and right to free expression.

"I'm 20 years old," said Arjun, who asked to be identified only by his first name, for fear of punishment by campus officials. "I can go vote for my leaders, but I can't decide what to wear?"

The imbroglio over Anna University's sartorial restrictions, which were instituted late last year, triggered nationwide debate over "moral policing" in what remains a rather deeply conservative society.

But beyond that, it laid bare a widening fault line in a country rapidly on the rise: the gap between India's older generation and its huge youth population, whose increasingly globalized outlook and consumerist ways have pushed them in directions their parents could once scarcely have imagined.

More than half of India's 1.1 billion people are younger than 25. As the nation liberalizes its economy, its youth are growing up with far more opportunities, far more trappings of affluence and far more signs of exposure to the outside world, particularly the West, than previous generations did.

That has translated into a greater confidence and a palpable sense of excitement over an expanded universe of possibilities.

But it has meant greater tension as well, between the tugs of tradition and the enticements of modern life. Attitudes are shifting fast -- on personal freedom, relationships between the sexes, what to do with disposable income and other hot-button issues. Conservative Indians, often religious Hindus and Muslims, fear that morals are being corrupted.

Anna University's vice chancellor, D. Viswanathan, came down firmly on the side of conservatism last fall when he decreed that female students were forbidden to wear T-shirts, jeans or tight clothing on campus. Only the traditional shalwar kameez, a long tunic over loose pants, would be acceptable.

"College campus is not a fashion parade. It's a place where [young people] get more knowledge, where they get educated and where they get good employment," Viswanathan said. "Students must come in decent dress so that they will not distract other students."

The restrictions immediately sparked protests, at first because they targeted only women, whose outfits were supposedly distracting male students.

A few months before, the dean of a university in New Delhi caused a stir when he blamed "revealing dresses" for the gang rape of a student off campus. Other school officials in India also came out in favor of prohibiting girls from wearing miniskirts, tight shirts and shorts on campus, arguing that such measures would reduce sexual harassment, known in India by the euphemism "Eve-teasing."

Women's rights groups throughout India were disturbed by what they saw as a similar implication of Anna University's new dress code: that female students were somehow responsible for the bad behavior of their male counterparts.

"Women in India are always treated in a double-standard way," said N.A. Arasi, a doctoral student at Bharathidasan University in Trichy, another city here in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. "Their bodies are treated as an object to be consumed by men."

Anna University officials hastily modified their ban on informal attire to include male students as well. But the protests did not stop.

"In the modern world, even some presidents wear T-shirts and jeans," said G. Selva, secretary of the Students Federation of India in Tamil Nadu, which opposes the wardrobe regulations. "Dress does not reflect a student's educational capacity."

Selva and others said that casual clothing was a much more practical option for young people, given India's sweltering climate, the endless demands of washing and ironing formalwear, and the rigors of fieldwork, lab work and other hands-on study.

Los Angeles Times Articles