Dancing women in sarees smash stereotypes

If you saw a picture of middle-aged women in sarees hugging one another and dancing, what would you think they were up to?

According to a photo gone viral on social media, those were Indian scientists celebrating the success of their Mars orbiter last week.

No, that wouldn't have been my first guess either. But why was it not?

Leave aside assumptions about gender roles and female representation in science. We judge people by the clothes they wear, especially women by what they wear.

On the plus side one accords a woman in a white lab coat the respect due a doctor or scientist. Conversely, a woman in a T-shirt and denim shorts would not be expected to be a regional superstar, though singer Stefanie Sun wore just that outfit to McDonald's and shrugged off negative comments.

We easily assume clothes provide visual cues about a person's abilities and social role and forget that these cues are so easily misinterpreted and, in some cases, based on prejudice.

Madam Halimah Yacob, Speaker of Parliament, told The Straits Times an eye-opening story last year about when she was deputy secretary-general of NTUC and a new security guard mistook her for a cleaner as she came in to work.

I have only seen her impeccably dressed, in either traditional baju kurong or Western attire, so I suspect it might have been her head covering which threw the guard off.

If the shoe fits, wear it - while traditional clothes are not exactly frowned upon, neither are they encouraged in many workplaces in Singapore.

I know women who feel much more comfortable in the Indian salwar-kameez outfit of loose pants and long shirt, especially in hot summer weather. Yet they squeeze, complaining, into stockings and dresses and jackets, telling me that they simply cannot wear a traditional outfit, no matter how smart or expensive, and still be taken seriously at the office.

These are women working for multinational companies by the way, companies with offices in multiple countries and with Singapore-based staff of various races too.

As my own surprise at the photo of the saree-wearing scientists shows, there seems to be a pervasive idea here that smart, forward-thinking professionals wear Western clothes.

Part of this might come from the post-colonial tendency to revere the Occident.

Part might also be the same reason schools insist that students wear uniforms: because reducing distinctions in appearance and costume hopefully enable youth to learn to judge their classmates by intelligence, athletic ability, trustworthiness and personal charm rather than who can afford the Gucci Kids line. (It is a great theory laughed at by many of my teacher friends who would love to spend less time dressing down their charges - literally, by confiscating additions to school gear.)

Shouldn't adults be smarter, though, and realise that women have the right to wear what they want to wear as long as they do their job? In fact, they should wear what they are most comfortable in so as to be better at their jobs.

Ever since May, when I threw my back out, I have exchanged pretty, dainty heels for trainers or sneakers or support shoes - each actually more expensive than said heels - and thrilled to the absence of pain at the end of a day full of interviews.

A surprising number of sources have commented on my "sporty" and "comfortable" look. All were women, all had a slight twist to their lips as they spoke. I think they were jealous, especially when I paired those shoes with cotton kameezes, perfect for the recent hot spell.

Perhaps one day social perceptions will change to the point where women in baju kurong or samfoo do not raise eyebrows as they walk into the operating theatre and start donning surgical gloves instead of pulling out a mop.

I suppose it starts with a photo of saree-clad women shared a million times online so we remember that women grounded in their traditions can also reach for and touch the stars.


This article was first published on Sep 28, 2014.
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