Ripped jeans both cause and are symptomatic of moral turpitude in India, and parents should not allow their children, especially girls, to wear them.
So said Tirath Singh Rawat, the newly appointed chief minister of the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand at a workshop organised by the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights.
The chief minister blamed “societal breakdown” on denim and chastised Indians for “running towards nudity”. He claimed that “while people in India were wearing ripped jeans, those abroad were covering their bodies properly and doing yoga”.
Rawat’s comments attracted widespread condemnation throughout India.
The head of the Delhi Commission for Women, Swati Maliwal, tweeted accusing Rawat of “propagating misogyny”.
On Thursday, senior party leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra shared photographs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a colleague “showing their knees”.
Rawat’s remarks sparked a Twitter storm with thousands of Indian women sharing photos of themselves wearing ripped jeans.
Many tweeted that Rawat should worry about more important matters like “ripped economy” and “women’s safety”.
The opposition Congress party issued a statement telling him to “apologise to all Indian women” or resign.
On Friday, Rawat did offer an apology, saying everyone was free to wear what they choose.
The Uttarakhand chief minister is not the only Indian male with clothing advice for India’s women. In 2014, legendary singer KJ Yesudas was criticised for saying women should not wear jeans as it was “against Indian culture” and provoked “undesirable” behaviour.
Clothing restrictions, especially for women and girls, are routinely reported from rural India, steeped in patriarchy.
Last week, a village caste council in Uttar Pradesh state said women in jeans and skirts would be socially boycotted.
A decade ago, a caste council in Uttar Pradesh banned girls from using mobile phones and wearing jeans.
In the past few years, ripped jeans have become hugely popular and everyone from Bollywood stars to ordinary Indians wears them.
Fashion designer Anand Bhushan, says, “For the young, they are about looking cool and fitting in with the fashionable crowd. For their parents and grandparents, it is incomprehensible why their children would wear torn clothes.”
Activists say it’s one thing for parents to frown upon their children’s sartorial choices but it’s an entirely different issue when public authorities start banning clothes.
“It’s an attempt to control women,” says Bhushan. “They offer the same tired arguments that jeans are not part of our culture, that they come from the West.”
Rawat’s criticism of ripped jeans has had at least one unintended consequence: it has prompted some women to try them for the first time.
Mumbai-based Viji Venkatesh said Rawat’s “ridiculous and offensive” comments made her cut holes in a good pair of jeans.
“I’m 69 years old and generally wear saris. I had also always wondered why kids would wear shredded jeans,” she said. “But I was so angered by Rawat’s anti-women remarks that I made holes in a pair and posted a photo wearing them on Twitter.”
Her verdict? “They are really comfortable on my knees and they still look pretty good.”
She adds that what women wear is nobody’s business but their own.
“It’s not Rawat’s concern. He should be worried about melting glaciers in Uttarakhand and other environmental issues that the state is facing and not about what women are wearing.”