NIFT students in Kerala fight for right to wear jeans, protest moral policing by locals

Students of the National Institute of Fashion Technology’s campus in Kannur held a public demonstration and rally to protest what they said were increasing cases of sexual harassment against girl students.

Protesters took out a rally through Kannur town to question police inaction over rising cases of attacks on female NIFT students by gangs of bikers.

“Bikers try to grab girl students when they are returning from college,” alleged S Sreelakshmi, a student at the central government institute.

“This is not an isolated incident. This is the eighth such case the last two months,” she said, adding that the police have been less than helpful.

“We were able to catch the culprits twice. Still, the police have not conducted any serious investigation into this so far. We make a complaint, someone comes over and makes a few inquiries. But no other action, such as holding patrols in the evening, has been initiated,” she added.

The campus, located in the Dharmashala area of Kannur, is one of the 16 run by the National Institute of Fashion Technology or NIFT — India’s premier destination for students who want to learn about design and fashion, particularly for garments.

An estimated 100 girls from various parts of India study at the campus here.

Women in Kerala enjoy a lower degree of sartorial freedom compared to other states in India due to the strong influence of Middle Eastern culture. The coastal state has had trading links with West Asia for millennia.

Even as jeans and t-shirts have become increasingly acceptable clothes for women in other parts of India, women who wear tight-fitting clothes in Kerala tend to face more stares and cat-calls compared to other states.

The problem is more acute in the northern districts like Kannur and Calicut, where women’s fashion has become more and more restrictive in the last 10-15 years.

During the last two decades, an increasing number of women in these areas have started donning black costumes that were originally designed for women in the Arabian desert to protect them from the relentless sun and to keep the sand out of their eyes.

Many women in the northern districts — which have a substantial Muslim population of about 50% — follow the desert dress code for religious reasons, despite the obvious discomfort of wearing such clothes in the hot, humid and wet climate of Kerala.

In contrast, the local men have not taken to Arabian costumes. All men continue to wear European fashion — shirts and pants, instead of the loose-fitting ventilated white gown (thawb) and the chequered headress (keffiyeh) preferred by men who live in the Arabian desert.

Along with the female sartorial transformation, the northern districts — once considered the most progressive due to the legacy of direct British rule — have also achieved increasing notoriety for incidents of ‘moral policing’ by gangs of devout men.

Not surprisingly, female students at NIFT and the locals have had difficulty seeing eye to eye on the question of women’s fashion.

“People here have their own notions about NIFT,” said T Aparna, another student. “Even if you cover yourself from head to toe, you still have to endure all kinds of stares.

“We’ve learnt to ignore all that. But when they get physical, we have no choice but to react,” she added.

The protests seem to have woken up the local police authorities, who have promised an in-depth investigation.