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Saadgi: The Indian Plain Jane ideal

Western feminism talks about the infantalisation of women. Childish behaviour is rewarded, glorified and in some cases, forcibly attributed too. I think the Indian counterpart is a bit different – but there is an Indian counterpart. The Indian culture, across states idolizes the Plain Jane.

In general conversations among my extended family, I’ve often heard disparaging references to women who wear make-up. There is a strong implication that a woman who cares about her appearance beyond a very antiseptic ‘clean and tidy’, a woman who actively beautifies herself is wanton, cold and manipulative.

Pop culture is a good barometer of social attitudes. Bollywood & television routinely typify negative female characters as painted, overdressed women. The heroine in contrast, is fresh-faced, virginal (untouched even by make-up brushes) and given to more dutiful pursuits than caring for her beauty. Saadgi is a shining ideal for the Indian woman. ‘Saadgi’‘s verb form is saada which translates to plain.

If you think this is an exaggeration, look at the number of acid-throwing attacks, a crime unique to India. They’re almost always perpetrated by men whose attentions have been scorned and who feel like they have to right the balance by taking away the woman’s power – her beauty. In their defenses one hears statements like, “She thinks she’s so beautiful. She needs to be taken down a peg.”

Beauty is required of an Indian woman, but in an unobtrusive, apologetic way. As a woman who loves dressing and consistently flouts fashion norms in favour of my own personal style, I can testify to the heavy disapproval I have to deal with. This isn’t just restricted to when I wear ‘revealing’ clothes but also colours, accessories or other things that just aren’t ‘what is usually done’. I feel the constant pressure to conform, to be punished with derision and mockery if I don’t. Indian women are not supposed to be individualistic.

Plain Jane is a non-threatening image for a woman. A woman who is not a Plain Jane indicates that she thinks, that she is able to see herself as distinct from the social structure & the role she plays in it. It shows that she is aware of her personal desires, her rights even – most importantly, that she is aware of the concept of ‘personal’ and feels she has a right to it.

This goes completely counter to the patriarchal system that sees women only as the roles that they play – their relationships & their duties. No wonder India loves saadgi and hates a woman who aspires to beauty.

Update: The Restless Quill writes a thought-provoking post on the appeal of Malayam TV personality, Ranjini Haridas and why she’s shaking the system up – What the internet gave to the Kerala man (apart from p0rn)

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