The Right To Bear Arms
What if it had happened to your daughter?
 
In some countries, especially in the USA, every man has a constitutional right to carry a gun. A firearm, as it is called. The Second Amendment to their Constitution allows it. So, does one have the right to bare arms? Especially a child?
 
The right to carry weapons has a chequered history; in fact, religion had a lot to do with it. However, a bit of morality policing, parading as cultural and ethical imperatives, and the use of a pun, are fodder for this article. As does a recent newspaper report on chief minister (CM) Devendra Fadnavis’ observations in the Maharashtra Assembly. 
 
Does one have the right to bare arms? In other words, can a person, or a girl-child, expose her upper limbs, above her elbows? Can she wear a sleeve-less dress to a party?
 
Mr Fadnavis’ very legitimate grouse was against the social boycott of a couple in a Maharashtra village. The woman, obviously well-educated, wore jeans. The old fogies in town would have none of it. The female must be kept under everyone’s thumb, they reckoned. Finding fault with her, or anyone else’s, clothes is easy. Attacking the weakest is the bully’s only weapon.
 
Mr Fadnavis is bringing in a new law to stop this harassment. Although it is akin to another excellent piece of Central legislation, The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 and, therefore, on shaky ground due to similarity, the proposal adds new teeth by introducing harsher punishment and greater spectrum.
 
Back to the child with the exposed biceps. She was a pre-teen at a party. The school authorities baulked at this show of what they called ‘exposure of sexual objects’. The school, they said, had dress codes and this was a violation.
 
Now you be the judge. 
 
What if it had happened to your daughter? Do school dress codes apply when kids wear party dresses to dances? Even if the party is at school? 
 
The school had its way. The child put on a coat. The mother, however, is soldering on. She has a beef with the ‘sexual’ connotation being applied to a child.
 
Ankles were hidden in Victorian times. They were considered objects of arousal. Yes, ankles. And now, upper arms. Makes the fashion industry’s theory, of the shift of the erogenous zone, sound legitimate. Today, however, anklets are fashion statements!
 
What this boils down to is the perception of individuals. What is sauce for the goose is not necessarily sauce for the gander. Would bare mid-riffs call for censure of cholis? Or bare backs? Is back-polishing a cosmetic exercise or a lure? Surely, this attire exposes a lot more than a pair of jeans and a blouse. 
 
Or is it that the village panchayats want to decide who wears the pants in the family, literally? To call them ‘moral police’ is incorrect terminology. Morality policing may be apt. The guys are no more moral than the next man. In fact, they might see lewdness where none exists, except in fossilised mind-sets.
 
Courts have wrestled with these problems through the ages. What constitutes obscenity is yet to be defined. What might seem immoral to a hide-bound 60-year-old may not be worth a second glance to a teenager. That the bare-armed kid was hauled up in America, a land that is touted as a Mecca of freedom, is even more intriguing. 
 
Once again, we find ourselves in the ‘reasonableness’ territory. Who decides what is correct and what is ‘sexy’? Do all people find the same clothing equally offensive and repulsive? Most likely, the true reason is the opportunity of misusing authority beyond the terms of reference. 
 
Fortunately, on the 7th of July last year, the Supreme Court of India came down heavily on misguided zeal. It said that khaps and panchayats must mind their own business and not interfere with the basic fundamental and human rights of individuals. 
 
Power to Mr Fadnavis’ arm, open or clothed!  
 
(Bapoo Malcolm is a practising lawyer in Mumbai. Please email your comments to [email protected])
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