How women in India reclaimed the protest power of ripped jeans

accreditation
0:00
play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
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?

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Do you think it's important to get married in this day and age?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Results
Yes, it's important in order to create a family unit and for companionship
22% - 652 votes
Not at all. Being single is far more liberating
9% - 272 votes
There is no general answer to this, it's each to their own
50% - 1497 votes
Yes, society still frowns on unmarried people, especially women
1% - 40 votes
It depends on whether you are able to find a compatible partner
18% - 541 votes
Vote