When I was walking along the stone-paved street late one evening, I saw her standing on the sidewalk, as if hesitant, unsure if she wanted to cross the lane. I saw other pedestrians walking past her, ignoring her. She looked like an old lady, wearing a long skirt and a robe, her head covered, carrying vessels. Possibly butter? Olive oil? Milk? She was still.
It is only when I got closer to her that I realized she was a statue. The Galician town of Ourense has a few other similar lifelike statues of ordinary people, stuck in unremarkable, natural poses, and you almost think they are real, if impassive. There is another one of a man pointing at the sky, as if admonishing the gods; of a man sitting on a bench; of a child going to school. But the statue of that woman was striking.
The next morning, as I passed through the path again, I noticed something else. In the bright sunlight, I could see the shop window on the side of the statue. It was a boutique, and there was a large poster of a woman in jeans. She had her back to the camera, her face turned three-quarters of the way back, her hair bouncing gaily, her jeans clinging to her as if the garment was part of her skin, and she was topless—you could see the slight contour of her breast at an angle, if you looked hard enough.
The contrast was telling—here was the statue of an older woman, dressed modestly, covered almost till her toes, her face dour and grim, her sexuality almost shrouded. And there was a young woman, proud of her body, coyly not revealing her breasts, leaving it to the pedestrian’s imagination. Galicia is in the conservative part of Spain, but the poster wasn’t a nod at conservatism; Spain may be largely Catholic, but it has left social conservatism far behind.
I took a picture of the two, called it “Europe: Then and Now”, and uploaded it on a social networking site. A friend asked me—which is “then” and which is “now”? Was the modestly attired old woman from the past? And the young woman in the poster the present? Or was the image of the younger woman likely to become the past, and more and more women would end up dressing like the older woman?
Europe seems to take the way its women dress too seriously. France has spent an enormous amount of time debating if women can wear the hijab or not, and if so, under what circumstances. The French say that as a secular nation, they want to leave no room for religion in public spaces, they don’t want a display of religious identity in public. In theory, that would mean restrictions on orthodox Jews as well as Sikh men, but somehow, much of the focus and debate has focused on what women can wear—or should not wear.
In this, the French police in certain coastal provinces this summer have become the Western equivalent of the Saudi Arabian mutawwi, or the religious police. They have gone around the beaches looking for women who may be dressed in burkinis, a full-body swimsuit for women that reveals only the face, hands and feet, and forced them to change into something more suitable to French beaches, that is, to wear less, which would reveal more. That is humiliating for the women, who should be free to wear what they want—burkini, bikini, or go topless, if they prefer. Forcing women to cover up—as the Saudis do—is wrong; forcing them to reveal more—as the French seemed to be saying—is also wrong.
Almost a quarter of a century ago, I was in Mauritius on an assignment, writing about its plan to set up an offshore finance centre. It was October, and Diwali was around the corner, and a Hindu family I had met in Port Louis invited me to the sea the next morning. They were going for what they called ganga snan, a holy dip, to usher in the new year. At the beach, I saw many Hindu women in their saris, walking into the water, pulling their saris up to their knees, bending to scoop up some of the water to wash their faces, and bowing to the rising sun. On the sands I saw dozens of women, part of a European tour group, lying topless and sunning themselves. Neither embarrassed the other; neither minded the other’s choice.
As I looked again at the statue of the old woman wrapped in robes and the poster of the young woman wearing only jeans, I hoped such a time would be possible tomorrow, where there would be no then and now, where the woman in the statue would unfreeze and cross the road, and on the other side, the woman in jeans would embrace her with open arms; it would be nobody else’s business.
Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.