Every tourist guidebook about India will tell you that the country is “extremely conservative” about dress. In particular, women are expected to keep their shoulders covered, and their legs down past their ankles. Conformity is universal: Older ladies wear saris, even when doing manual labor, and the sauciest club-goers will still at least wear leggings or jeans under short dresses.
The tourists I’ve seen are pretty good about this too, if slightly inelegant in their hippie pants and t-shirts. I covered up in Chennai, mostly because the smog and the dirt, and it was cool enough in Bangalore and Munnar to wear pants. Cochin and Pondicherry are beachy vacation tourist towns, so shorts and skirts felt acceptable.
Kolkata, not so much. Women are rare on the streets to begin with—it’s a much more dude-heavy city than other places I’ve been. I’m reliably informed that this is because Kolkata is culturally more Northern, more heavily Muslim, and women are generally expected to stay at home. Foreigners are conspicuous, and one in a shapeless, sleeveless yellow dress that stops just above her knees is like an entirely alien creature (nevermind one running in the morning in shorts and a tank top). Everyone stares, children shriek hello. Sometimes people yell at me. Usually-silent dogs bark threateningly.
Am I being terribly rude and disrespectful by exposing my American shins and shoulders to the world? Is this basically a giant “fuck you” to a society that I have no desire to offend?
I’ve decided to take that risk. It’s entirely too hot and too wet to wear even light cotton pants in this city. I tromp around all day, gathering a film of grime; my feet will never be clean again. This is the Olympics of touristing here. Covering up just slows you down.
Besides, I rationalize: Men get to wear whatever they want, often going shirtless with just a cloth lungi to stay decent. Women expose other parts of their body, like their midriffs, which are apparently not considered erotic. Meanwhile, it’s not like there’s any lack of access to images of the female form. Advertising is advertising, after all. And statues of goddesses all over Hindu temples leave very little to the imagination.
I realize there’s a tug-of-war in India between the traditional older generation and a massive youth population with a more global sense of style. If my culturally insensitive bare knees end up pulling for the kids’ side, I don’t think I’ll have done any harm.
Still, my apologies.