Every year before our annual summer trip to India, my mother would take on the meticulous task of sewing salwaar kameez (tunic styled shirt worn with pleated trousers) for my sister and me. Each salwaar kameez would be paired with a dupatta (a scarf arranged over the chest and usually thrown around the shoulders). While little girls could do without a dupatta, once we hit puberty, wearing dupatta was an essential part of the outfit to avoid unwanted male attention, a dupatta’s practical functionality was somewhere between secrecy and revelation, respectably concealing and revealing the body’s maturity into a sexual being.
While it was quite common to be without dupatta among women, there would be frantic dupatta-search once a male relative would come around unannounced. If, some of us who had just started wearing salwaar-kameez would naively forget about our scarves, there would always be an elder on watch, usually one of my aunts who would remind us of our grown-up status. Thus, as Foucault wrote in History of Sexuality (Vol I), “sex was not something one simply judged; it was a thing one administered. It was in the nature of a public potential; it called for management procedures.”
The sexual politics of dupatta was being constantly discussed and managed, it signaled that thoughts about sex were steadily lurking around, how one wore ones dupatta signaled how much of their figure was revealed and would in turn be a testament to how modest or sexually explicit one is. At my college in Aligarh, freshers’ were required to cover their heads with dupatta during the ragging period around their seniors. At the end of the ragging period, one would choose their favourite aapa (senior sister) to uncover their head, this ceremony would be the end of the ragging period and ones freedom to wear other forms of clothing including the western clothes of jeans and shirt. However, wearing dupatta remained compulsory in the dining halls where male chefs would serve food and a student who forgot her scarf would be called out by a senior and reminded to always enter the dining hall with one. This constant policing allowed to develop a scheme of transforming unspeakable topic of sex into discourse.
At the female-only residential facility of Abdullah Hall, AMU, sexuality was being monitored, controlled, managed by authorities and this surveillance was being resisted, rebelled against through meetings with lovers on Sundays, late night phone calls and illegal outings during weekdays. While sex was not spoken of at all, the architectural design and layout, the rules for outing and visiting, the systems of surveillance launched by the wardens, the obsession with tehzeeb, all reflected to the fact that the question of sex was a constant preoccupation. The female-residential facility remains segregated from the main campus of AMU, the wardens would always be in a “state perpetual alert” for signs of digression and their acts would range from character-assassination, suspect homosexuality and spreading fear-inducing stories about pregnant female students to confiscating of phones to read intimate texts. Thus, the internal discourse of the institution was largely positioned on the assumption that this sexuality existed and it was active.
At times there would be transgressions from this covertly and subtly ubiquitous present sexuality in the everyday and mundane life of family, in interactions and in social and public spheres. At Lucknow, during the evening tradition of tea with my female cousins and aunts, the conversations would range from politics, culture, Urdu poetry to teasing remarks and indirect jokes about sex, it was acceptable for a younger woman to tease an elder with sexually-remarked joke, this would often draw laughter from everyone and comments about how besharam (shameless) one is growing up to be. These conversations often diffused the power-dynamics, the child’s natural knowledge of sexuality was not put to surveillance or controlled, no discretion was required between speakers and it enabled a break for elders from their constant surveillance, control and preoccupation with sex.
During one of these evening chai breaks, my aunts told us stories of our grandmother, how she used to tell them that children during her time were sent to tawaifs (the highly sophisticated courtesan who catered to the nobility in South Asia) to be taught adab (Islamic etiquette and manners). These slight transgressions are nostalgic reminder of the old times, perhaps, of times when, as Foucault writes of, “a certain frankness was still common …knowing children hung about amid the laughters of adults.”