The Modesty Code: My First Encounter With ‘Sexism’

Trigger Warning: This article discusses moral policing, sexism, forms of trauma and mental health.

Simone de Beauvoir once famously said “One is not born but rather becomes a woman”. This statement is true in the context of the constant gendered upbringing that a female goes through; during her initial phases as a little girl and then as a woman. At every phase of her life she is treated as ‘other’. This process of “othering” is what makes her the ‘second sex’. 

During my initial years of growing up in Delhi, I never felt any different from any of my male counterparts as my parents treated me and my brother with equality. Living the majority of my life in a nuclear set-up where both of us got equal opportunities to study and pursue our hobbies made me confident and upfront. Things however used to change when I used to visit my native place. There, I used to witness what life was for women living in joint-families laced with religious and cultural beliefs that deprived them of their privacy and dignity. It was a society where women were confined to hours of unpaid household work, where child-care was exclusively reserved for women, where men were permitted to scream, belittle women publically, where women were not allowed to enter kitchen or temples while they menstruated as they were considered ‘polluted’, a society where gender injustice seemed the brooding law. I noticed that with the hours of cooking, house-cleaning that my aunts used to do, they never received a single word of appreciation either from their husbands or their elders. It almost seemed as if the ‘women were destined for this’.

Since childhood, I observed these injustices around me and used to constantly question my mother. She however would calm me by assuring that ‘education was the only weapon against gender injustice’. She instilled in me ideas of Equality, Justice and Fraternity, she always encouraged me to speak my mind and never confined me to traditional roles of which women were supposed to perform.

During my growing up, out of the many incidents that I experienced; one amongst them was rather unexpected and peculiar. I was at my native place for one of my uncle’s weddings and was playing with my cousins, completely oblivious to the fact that now being a 13 year old adolescent, I was supposed to conform to the norms of ‘traditional dressing’! I remember wearing Top with jeans that day. My grandmother, watching me play with my cousins, called me to a corner and asked me “Where is your dupatta? You need to cover your chest!” I was in utter shock. I don’t remember what I replied but felt completely humiliated and was shaking as I had violated the modesty code. 

Years passed by but this incident stayed with me, it haunts me even now. I still never fail to cover my chest area with a dupatta and prefer wearing loose fitted clothes so as to avoid any male gaze. This incident made me realize how women have from ages been conditioned to think a certain way, talk a certain way and dress a certain way. A woman’s life is full of such ugly experiences; experiences of unwanted male gaze, inappropriate touching, moral policing etc. It is due to these experiences that women globally are twice as likely as men to suffer from mental illness owing to specific social roles and gender stereotyping.

We as a country talk about women empowerment, how can we even achieve that when our elders are sexist, when they tend to decide what kind of clothes should dominate our wardrobe, when they impose their beliefs, opinions upon the other half of the population. 

The start can however be made by calling out such SEXISM!


Nupur Sharma is a 27 yr old Advocate currently practicing in Delhi High Court. 

Featured image illustration by Pariplab Chakraborty.