Anyone who has unknowingly signed up for a day in the sauna in Germany is bound for some culture shock. If you have friends who were kind enough to let you know how saunas ‘work’ in this country, you’ve probably had the good, common sense to steer clear.
While I was warned about having to be without a bathing suit, i.e. utterly and unreservedly naked, in a German sauna, this did nothing to put me off. Rather, curiosity got the best of me and I wanted to try it out. Now, quite a few friends of mine have expressed their discomfort with being in a roomful of naked people. And I get that. I certainly wouldn’t want to be in a sweaty room with any of my friends, simply because I have no desire to make acquaintance with their bodily orifices. However, I find the general experience incredibly liberating. Why? That may require some explanation.
I grew up in a land far away where, while I wasn’t forced to wear something that the state believed I should, decorum has to be maintained and modesty preserved. While this may mean different things to different people, Bangladeshi women learn from a very early age that the chest area must be covered – to the point where no one should know you have breasts. Should the silhouette of breasts be discernible, it is already considered indecent. Should you choose to wear your ‘orna’ or scarf around your neck, thereby exposing your chest area, it will be deemed scandalous. Not only this, I can also recall a time when wearing anything sleeveless was considered too-forward and was frowned upon.
I am a staunch believer of dressing modestly. But just as I will defend your right to choose what you wear, including that expressing your religious faith, I will defend your right to choose what modesty means for you, if you happen to be someone who doesn’t want to bare it all but also does not accept how society defines it. Having spent a considerable part of my formative years in Bangladesh, I am acutely aware of the expectations to maintain decorum and to not dress inappropriately – lest that gets you unwanted attention, which can range from disapproving looks from elders to catcalls on the street. Sadly, this is also not a situation that is unique to Bangladesh.
The world over, rape victims are pummeled with questions about what they were wearing at the moment when their attackers assaulted them. Policies around contraception are developed without much female representation in policy-making. Abortions are denied to women who face life-threatening pregnancies. Is it any wonder that our bodies are not ours to do with as we please?
My first brush with adulthood was back in the year 1997/1998, when a story was published in the front page of every conceivable daily newspaper on New Year’s Day of a woman being stripped of her sari in the middle of a square at midnight by wild, animal-like, rejoicing men. Her fault? She was out in a public square to celebrate New Year’s Eve where thousands of other men were also present. It enraged me to the point where I wrote a 1500-word article and sent it in to be published (it was). It made me go numb, even at the age of 13, to realize that something like this can happen to a woman, no matter how decently she is dressed. It is the sheer entitlement of an ambiguous entity called ‘society’ that gets to decide what happens with your body – both in the privacy of your home as well as in public.
I fear that we still haven’t come a long way since that incident. I think through meticulously before packing for a trip back home. What would I wear?
This is precisely why, being in a German sauna feels so liberating. Nobody stares at me. Nobody cares what my breasts look like. And no one is judging me for being indecent. Having flesh and blood is not unique. We all have them. It’s not something that is out of the ordinary. If we can start accepting the ‘ordinariness’ of being made of skin and bones, perhaps we can relieve women of the pressure to hide and be invisible.