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Should Religious Custodians Decide Dress Codes in Places of Worship?

Dress codes in places of worship has been an ongoing debate in India. Religious leaders like Temple priests, Imams and Christian priests seem to want to have a say as to how women belonging to their religion should dress. However, a video that recently resurfaced nearly 11 months after it was originally uploaded on a Christian Channel on YouTube, seems to have raised an uproar, with people angrily commenting about the priest’s speech.

“Why is that thing even in church?” he asks as he seems to think that women wearing jeans shouldn’t be allowed in the Church. Addressing a Christian convention, he goes on to say, “There are times when you don’t feel like giving communion to these girls in church or even allowing them in church.”  He even comments on their hairstyle and wishes if they would at least comb it or tie it up with a ribbon. He feels, that a woman so dressed is merely showing off!

The rant goes on, “I want to ask girls sitting here, has the Catholic Church allowed you to wear jeans and banyan that men wear?” Father Sharlom even goes on to say that outfits like these tend to tempt men into committing sin and that by trying to do so with their skimpy outfits, the women are sinning.

Not wishing to be dragged into controversy, Reverend TK Thomas from Thiruvalla says, “The Bible says, it wants women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.” However, there isn’t any clear definition as to what modesty means. To which he says, “How a person dresses to church, is their personal decision.” Christianity according to him is a personal relationship with Jesus.

“Normally, the church doesn’t dictate any kind of dress code. What the priest has said in the video is purely his personal opinion and not of the church, just as editors give a disclaimer in the newspaper saying that the Op-ed is the writer’s own opinion not of the newspaper,” says Reverend Dr. Joe Joseph Kuruvilla, Director of Mar Thoma counselling centre, Thiruvalla. He also goes on to say, however, the Mar Thoma church does emphasis on simplicity of attire and urges church-goers to wear white for masses and sermons as white symbolises purity. He also adds, “There is only a general rule, not a law to dress appropriately to the occasion.” However, he feels that one should dress at any place of worship with modestly as to respect the sanctity of prayer or of their faith.

In December 2016, a Kerala priest refused to conduct a wedding stating that the bride’s neckline was too low and demanded that she change into a ‘modest’ sari if she wanted to go ahead with the ceremony. To this effect, Malankara Orthodox Church in Parumala has made it compulsory for Christian brides to wear saris for weddings.

Style shaming at religious places doesn’t stop at Churches. Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple too, was in news last year when Kerala High Court declared that women wearing churidhaars maybe permitted in the temple premises only if the priest seems it to be fit. Guruvayoor Temple, has been in news over the sari- churidhaar debate too.

In December last year, Muslim Clerics made a comment on the outfit of the wife of Indian cricketer Mohammed Shami. According to them, as per Islamic laws, her body should have been fully covered, as opposed to the ‘full length’ gown she was wearing!

“When comments like these are made by men with power and influence, like religious and political leaders, women are often pushed to submission out of fear. Again, the main fault lies in viewing women as a ‘product’ than as an individual. A man’s outfit is never questioned. We, as a society, tend to put the burden of morality on our women and hence, they are often subjected to such scrutiny. And it is due to this reason, that a woman’s body is a burden to her as everything right from her actions to her outfits and her company is being scrutinised,” says CR Neelakandan, a social activist and State Convener of Aam Admi Party.

“I personally feel that the priest might have said so for some personal mileage. There isn’t any protocol on how women should dress. A priest, a police officer or an army man is required to wear a uniform. But that doesn’t apply to a lay man or an ordinary church-goer. The priest says that outfits like these tempt men. Jesus however says, ‘If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.’ It in a way tells you exercise self-control rather be critical of others. Moderate dressing is something the society dictates,” says Dr M Kurian Thomas, a social researcher in ancient Christianity in Kerala.

So the larger question remains, who decides what is allowed and what isn’t? Of course, as per social norms no one would wear a ball gown or a backless dress to any place of worship. But does that make religious custodians authority on dress codes?

Cover Image courtesy: By Esme Vos CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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