The politics of the bikini: a tiny problem

Just after Congress nominated 26-year-old Archana Gautam as Hastinapur’s candidate for the upcoming Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, images of her in a bikini started flooding the internet. Gautam, a political newbie, won Miss Uttar Pradesh in 2014 and Miss Bikini India in 2018. Hindu Mahasabha opposed Gautam’s candidacy, saying her career choice hurt the feelings of citizens of “the old holy city”, who consider it a pilgrimage. center. The model and actor isn’t fazed by rivals’ attempts to shame him. “To people who make vulgar statements, I want to say that I have two professional lives. I have represented my country on an international platform and I am proud of it,” said Gautam, who has been contesting since one of India’s most conservative belts, western Uttar Pradesh.

The people of Hastinapur know about the policy of nudity because of another battle thousands of years ago which involved a woman in a state of undress. The humiliation of her fraying garment in court transformed her into anger incarnate, a mighty force that unleashed a war that diminished her enemies. The legend of the Vastraharan of Draupadi hangs over the city of Hastinapur, a predominantly rural population entangled in the myth that the Queen’s curse prevents the land from prospering.

Throughout history, the dress of women, especially those who dare to enter the public fray, has been controversial; everyone has an opinion on it. It’s not unique to India. During Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, his rival posted an image of the future First Lady posing provocatively, wearing handcuffs and sporting a gun. Trump fired back with a photo of his opponent’s wife (a little austere compared to Melania) asking voters “Which one do you prefer?”, drawing plenty of laughs at the time.

Typically, Indian female politicians campaign in saris with their heads covered. Cultivating a demure (read, chaste) appearance, reminiscent of either the obedient daughter or the dutiful wife, was an integral part of the election campaign (although they weren’t spared criticism for that either).

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has been accused of wearing ‘jeans in Delhi and sindoor in the gaon’ as if there was something naughty about lounging in denim, or she was doing it deliberately, behind voters’ backs .

Like many 20-somethings of her generation, Gautam sees no contradiction between posing in a bikini and fighting an election, but Twitter’s fascination with her swimsuit threatens to obscure everything else. The sword wielded by the opposition is the critical criticism that a woman in a bikini cannot be taken seriously as a politician.

It’s worth noting that in a country where more than half the population is under 30 – and fully exposed to the world via social media – a two-piece swimsuit isn’t so outrageously risky anymore. The #indianbikini hashtag has hundreds of posts on Instagram, revealing how technology can impact identity and, therefore, culture.

Contrary to what the Hindu Mahasabha would have us believe, the posers are not adult film actors but ordinary women from Indian towns and cities, often juxtaposing a two-piece alongside a sari. Now that a contestant has had the temerity not to apologize for her clothing choices, the question must be asked, how do the mean things people say affect society as a whole? If we were to theorize blindly about our national discourse, too great a majority would be influenced by outdated truths. Rebuilding new personal beliefs will require many uninhibited young people like Gautam thrown into the mix.

The bikini is so ubiquitous in Hindi films that it is no longer even an accessory to represent a liberated woman. The bikini sari blouse is a standard fashion item, available on Flipkart. Leisure brands like UnderArmour and Nike make bikini tops as active wear. Delegitimizing the women who wear them in politics is a sign of inequality, the message being that women are not yet fully welcome in the hallowed halls of government.

(Writer is director, Hutkay Films)

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