Image Source: Wikipedia
In the debate on gender, what can be used as a tool of suppression can also be used as a tool of liberation. Dresses, therefore, can be used both to reinforce cultural and social stereotypes and subvert the same.
The sari is a highly gendered and nationalized garment. In literature throughout ages, it has stood for maternal affection and womanhood. It also is the national formals for the country, making it a very ‘Indian’ piece of garment.
In today’s feminist discourse the saree, therefore, has two different connotations - while one perspective deems it a constraining and oppressive garment; another holds it as a signifier of the strength and constancy it takes to be a woman.
When Sarla Thakral flew the Grey Moth in 1936, she was making history. At 21 years of age, she became the first female Indian pilot. On this historical moment, she chose to wear a saree. This is not just a random item of clothing she chose to put on, as her choice has immense socio-cultural implications.
When we choose to wear trousers and pants to work that has been considered ‘for men’- like say flying a plane, we are imitating a man. Essentially, we are being men and negotiating a man’s world.
What Sarla Thakral reminds us that it doesn’t have to be a man’s world. It can be a woman’s too. The cockpit would have remained a masculine space if Sarla Thakral chose to wear her husband’s pants instead of her saree. So when she stepped into the cockpit – wearing a cultural signifier of being a woman, she changed the cockpit to a gender-neutral space.
The importance of her saree is to remind everyone that women do not need to change their style choices to be empowered. Women don’t need to be masculine to be strong. Women are strong, they are empowered. They just need to be given a fair chance - like Sarla was.
It is often said that Sarla Thakral was empowered because when she flew the plane she already had a four-year-old daughter. That theory always implies childcare is a solely female-centric activity. Since the saree is also a sign of maternity, her action is a reminder that a woman can be a mother and a professional. Motherhood is not a profession, just like fatherhood isn’t.
She was brave enough to chase her dreams as herself, and her action is a reminder to women all over the world that no matter who we are, we are enough. Our sarees can be our prisons if we let it be, but they can also be the symbols of our liberation. Therefore, it is important to remember what she was trying to say nearly 80 years ago, when we start to abandon traditions for their gender connotations.