How women in India reclaimed the protest power of ripped jeans

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An illustration. (Photo: Getty Images)
An illustration. (Photo: Getty Images)
  • Indian chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat shared he was shocked to see a woman on his flight wearing ripped jeans and took issue with her exposed knees.
  • The chief minister has since apologised following backlash for policing women’s bodies and their policing of free speech, which ripped jeans have come to symbolise in general. 
  • India has a known history of using clothing to communicate political meaning. 

A recently-elected Indian chief minister associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government sparked a swift and impassioned social media storm after he made a negative comment about a woman wearing ripped jeans on March 17.

While speaking at a workshop organised by the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat said he was shocked and outraged after he encountered a woman on his flight wearing ripped jeans. The minister took issue with her exposed knees. Rawat also pointed out that the woman was with her children and a leader of an NGO. He said these two facts combined with the ripped jeans put her moral values even further into question. The clip was circulated widely in the Indian press.

Maybe it was the creepy way Chief Minister Rawat described himself scanning the woman’s body with his gaze or the shaming tone he used when he asked her where her husband was. Or perhaps it was the judgemental way he expressed his opinion that ripped jeans were incommensurate with running an NGO and being a mother, and not in line with his version of Indian values. Or it could even have been the casual way he felt he had the right to interrogate her clothing choice at all.

READ MORE | This girl was suspended for showing her knees because she needs to consider "guys and their hormones"

But women across India responded in protest with alacrity and speed as they posted photos of themselves in ripped jeans on social media. Some even cut holes into their jeans before posting the defiant images. At one point, #RippedJeans was top trending on Twitter in India.

As an art historian of South Asian visual culture, I am interested in the ways images convey meaning. Why did ripped jeans cause such a stir? What are the codes contained in this seemingly simple but ubiquitous fashion trend?

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