Monday, July 30, 2007

Latter-day Godivas

(In another departure from the Ennobling World of Literature, here's a piece of mine that appeared in the Mumbai edition of today's Hindustan Times. (Will be putting up more book reviews soon!)

From PETA activists worldwide to protestors in Manipur to, most recently, a harassed housewife in Rajkot, appearing disrobed in public appears to be a potent weapon for aggrieved women today.

All of them owe more than they realise to the first person who supposedly employed this form of protest: the Anglo-Saxon noblewoman Lady Godiva, who rode naked on a horse through the streets of Coventry in the 11th century to make her husband repeal the harsh taxes he had imposed on the local populace. Fortunately, the man in question did indeed abolish the levies and we have no reason to believe that Lady Godiva ever again said that she had nothing to wear.

The Lady Godiva myth has many versions: some say her long, lustrous hair covered her completely; some assert that she was actually wearing a sleeveless shift; and some spoilsports maintain that all she did was to ride without her jewellery. (In passing, the expression ‘Peeping Tom’ is derived from here, too, referring to a lascivious tailor who had the temerity to stare at the lady, while others modestly kept their eyes lowered and windows shut. How unlike today’s media.)

Though the legend is unsupported by historical record, Lady Godiva’s fable refuses to die. Paintings and tapestries in Europe commemorate her ride; musicians from the Velvet Underground to Boney M have made use of her in lyrics; there’s an asteroid named after her; and, of course, she has a namesake, however mystifying, in the famous Belgian chocolate company.

Latter-day Godivas haven’t yet taken on inequitable tax regimes – one wishes they would – though it’s interesting to note that intentional or accidental exposure by celebrities, from Janet Jackson to Mallika Sherawat, leads to growls of protest at the state of our morals, but when it comes to the woman on the street, a state of undress serves as a weapon to provoke those in positions of power. Why bother with black armbands, besloganed T-shirts and angry badges when doing away with all forms of attire can make your point much more effectively?

That such stripped-down protests are primarily employed by women says a lot about the as-yet unbalanced equation between the sexes, from before Lady Godiva’s time till today. Men seem to prefer self-immolation, the effects of which are less easily reversible. Perhaps this is something one ought to be grateful for: the daily spectacle of hairy potbellies on TV would really be too much to bear. (Recall, if you will, Shiv Sena activists in baggy underwear protesting against Dilip Kumar’s support of Deepa Mehta’s Fire.)

If, however, this is a trend that catches on, one can only imagine the gloom that will descend upon the world of clothiers, outfitters and fashion designers. Times will be hard when nudity is the new black.

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