The question posited to me was “are women now becoming unafraid of controversy?” My short response is straightforward: “when have we ever been?” Afraid, that is. To look to the likes of the poses and performances of Veena Malik and Vidya Balan as signifiers of a bolder, less diffident womanhood is woefully ignorant of historical facts. There have always been controversial women. From the revolutionary (Phoolan Devi, Irom Sharmila), to the attention-courting (Kamala Das, Protima Bedi) to the free-spirited (Amrita Sher-Gil, Akka Mahadevi), there is a very long legacy of evidence that upsetting the acceptable is hardly a cutting-edge phenomenon.
And isn’t it very curious: why does controversy, when it comes to women, so often come down to sex, or more banally, the wonderful but ultimately reductionist arena of clothing (or lack thereof)?
Which brings us to the question of what the function of controversy is. Is it enough just to titillate? There’s probably nobody out there who doesn’t, as a voyeur or a vendor, love a good scandal. But if all one has to do is undress – well, how very boring.
What about subverting the system? I.e. does appearing topless on a magazine cover with an incendiary tattoo free other women to do the same, or does it merely elevate Veena Malik to certain celebrity, without a positive trickle-down effect on the freedoms of other people? Controversies come in two categories: the contrived and the accidental. The first stirs up the sensational on purpose. The second becomes notorious not by design but because it surprises on more complex levels than the obvious.
Some months ago, I began to wear a certain sartorial item that I had long admired. That I was turned away from two stores when I tried to purchase the said item should have given me a clue about what was to follow. Still, purchase it I did, for myself, for no reason other than that I found it beautiful.
The humble metti, nuptial toe-rings, were by far the most subversive thing that I – doyenne of firetruck-red lipstick, leopard-print thigh-highs and strapless sari blouses – had ever worn.
“What next? If thaalis were ‘pretty’ would you wear one too?” snapped someone.
“You’re not supposed to!” exclaimed another. Such a simple condemnation. Supposed.
“It suppresses sexual desire by way of the reflexology system,” rued one who found the whole idea disappointingly regressive. (“It’s not working,” I deadpanned.)
“Now there really is nothing left that will entice you to wed,” tsk tsk-ed one more.
These are some of the reactions that came from my own friends – free-thinkers, free-lovers, free-wheelers one and all. I noted the discomfort in the taciturn glances of strangers too: diverted interest (“this chick’s taken”), curiosity, and most of all, confusion. I do not, after all, look like I’m married – which is to say, I do not look like I am marriageable. The suggestion, then, is that I am one without being the other. Cue the collapse of logic in a certain moral universe. Which, if all sartorialism is semiotics, is precisely the effect I’m going for.
I’ve learned something very interesting as a result of wearing this most conformist and conservative of ornaments. It is that, contrary to what Audre Lorde wrote, perhaps the master’s tools can in fact dismantle the master’s house. True dissidence is rarely ostentatious. It occurs not at the level of wanting to be seen but on the level of deciding to – simply, guilelessly – be.
One last question: if the essence of controversy lies in shock value, are we perhaps just too easily shocked?
An edited version appeared in Times of India’s iDiva supplement today.