My latest book is The One Who Swam With The Fishes.

"A mesmerizing account of the well-known story of Matsyagandha ... and her transformation from fisherman’s daughter to Satyavati, Santanu’s royal consort and the Mother/Progenitor of the Kuru clan." - Hindustan Times

"Themes of fate, morality and power overlay a subtle and essential feminism to make this lyrical book a must-read. If this is Madhavan’s first book in the Girls from the Mahabharata series, there is much to look forward to in the months to come." - Open Magazine

"A gleeful dollop of Blytonian magic ... Reddy Madhavan is also able to tackle some fairly sensitive subjects such as identity, the love of and karmic ties with parents, adoption, the first sexual encounter, loneliness, and my favourite, feminist rage." - Scroll

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12 December 2017

Why a dress code is not feminist (I mean, duh, but still)

(This appeared as one of the F Word columns I used to do for The Week.)

Everyone else in my class 8 section loved Ragini Ma'am (not her real name), except for me. She was a bit like Miss Jean Brodie as in The Prime Of. She liked my friends; cool, popular girls who never needed a minute to find their tongues, and if they couldn't come up with a good comeback, they giggled. My friends then were rowdy, fond of disrupting classes with silly questions and undeniably popular. I—even though I tagged on at the fringes of this group—was quiet and tongue-tied mostly. She had no patience with me, but with them, she often could be seen sitting at her desk, a circle of young heads around her, leading the discussion with high, pre-teen voices rising up and down as they bantered with her.

Why am I thinking about Ragini Ma'am? Because today someone shared a post on my Facebook which had a rant by some teen girl's mother. The post essentially said the daughter had been written up and disciplined for wearing the wrong coloured bra. Why does the school have a right to check the colour of our children's underwear, asked the original poster, and suddenly, like a time warp, I was hurtling back to being twelve and being asked to go on ahead to my lunch break while all my other friends were called up to Ragini Ma'am's desk. If my memory serves, I was lingering in the hallways waiting for them, but in another trick of memory I am inside, listening to Ragini Ma'am myself. “Girls,” she is saying, “Don't wear these kind of bras to school.” She avoids looking at all of our newly sprouted breasts. We are proud of them, we wear them like a badge of honour. Most days, I put on my white school shirt and admire the outline of the bra underneath it. Look how grown up I am! “It distracts people,” she said, or was this what I was told waiting outside? Everyone blushed and giggled and carried on, and Ragini Ma'am put away her desk register, a smug smile on her face.

Who exactly did our bras distract? Our shirts were white, so opaque but not transparent, so in order to get a good look at a lacy training bra, you'd have to be gazing pretty damn close at our chests. Okay, so we were pre-teen girls in a co-ed school, just coming to terms with our sexuality, if you can even call it that. Some of us were getting our period for the first time, others were filling out from straight up and down to more curvy shapes. But, if the boys we went to school with cared about these details, they wouldn't have said, surely? It would be like us complaining about their hairy legs underneath their shorts (which they had to wear till class 9), or the smell of their sweat (why couldn't they carry deodorant if they were going to be playing heavy games on a hot day?). Therefore, by omission, it must have been Ragini Ma'am herself who noticed our bras and was distracted by them, so distracted, she had to forbid them.

This was the first time I had heard of a dress code in terms of “modesty” but it wouldn't be the last. Another school I went to had a regulation skirt length for the girls—these were all co-ed schools and all obsessed with keeping only the girl students in check. If your skirt was shorter than an inch above your knee, sometimes you'd get called up to the principal during assembly, and she'd have one of the teachers take a pair of scissors and slash at your hemline in front of the entire school. All day, you'd have to go around with your skirt in two different shades of grey, sagging about below your knees, and this was apparently an appropriate punishment. Who were the short skirts supposed to harm? Not us, we found a way around the problem by rolling our skirts up at the waist instead, easy enough to let down in front of authority figures. If the boys were scandalised by our knee caps and thighs, that was surely their own problem.

It was, therefore, in school, the place meant to mould your young mind and open your horizons etc, that we learned to cover up our bodies, even the bits of our bodies that were covered up anyway. It was there that we learned that bosoms—even twelve-year-old bosoms—were not something you were proud of. We were meant to be the gatekeepers for the boys, and the adults who might have been disturbed by our teenage flesh, it was all resting on our shoulders—keep everything locked up, locked away, hidden from sight, no one can know you have a body.

Dress codes are still going, there are still colleges and schools telling girls how to dress. After a while, it stops becoming something you even think about: when you're out in public, you automatically cover up, head to toe, wrapped in as much fabric as you can bear. And your lacy bras are a secret now, between you and your underwear drawer.

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