Centaurus Mall, in Islamabad, has got a sign that warns shoppers against things. One of them is bringing your pets, and another is a request to “wear respectful clothing”. The trouble is that the little icon next to this suggestion is that of a woman. What, I hear you say, does that matter? Only it does, a lot. It brings us straight back to the entire debate and trouble with morality being placed squarely on the vampish, enticing shoulders of women, who trigger all kinds of feels, to put it in modern slang.

First off, what is “respectful” clothing? Why is clothing supposed to show respect to begin with, and then to whom is it meant to respect?

Does it mean one isn’t allowed to wear sleeveless anything? Or shorts? Or a niqab? You see the slippery slope here; respect is a fluid measure because it is based on intention, and the display and interpretation of respect is as varied as people are. I could stand and offer my seat to someone older than me, which I would consider a respectful gesture. They could easily be offended by being considered old, which would make me a disrespectful person because I inadvertently insulted them. Conversely, if I didn’t offer my seat I could be offending the older person who might be expecting I stand up. Confusing, isn’t it? Precisely. That is why policing morality is never really the best of ideas, particularly when it is predicated on something as foolish as clothing.

Some moral ideas are universally regarded as true, or valid: murdering people is wrong, envy is undesirable, everyone should be nice to babies. Dressing modestly does not fall into that category. The Centaurus sign would have been less offensive if that female icon hadn’t been placed next to it, although policing anyone’s clothing, male or female, is wrong. We live in a fairly conservative public space, which means that the majority of us do not go shopping in tiny shorts or a tank top. People wear their skimpier clothes to places that are not open to public consumption, like parties or the gym. A shopping mall does not fit the bill. At the most you’ll have young women and men in jeans, or some men in shorts. There is also the factor of class and upward mobility to consider; many people will wear western clothes because it makes them feel modern, and thereby trendy. More power to the happiness begetted by feeling cool.

It is also interesting to look at the clothes themselves. The worst offenders are western clothes, followed by shalwar kameez without a dupatta. Some people feel quite strongly about how dupattas embody everything ‘graceful’ and feminine about a woman, even if that dupatta is slung casually around one’s neck, even if it is the most diaphanous scrap of cloth known to humanity that has been paired with Master Sahab’s most ingeniously tightly fitted kameez. Still much better than those devil clothes, jeans. Never mind that those jeans might be pretty innocuous, no more or less tight than the average churidar pyjama. The last on the modesty scale is the abaya and the niqab. Or I should perhaps say the top, because naturally nobody in their right mind would have the temerity to suggest that someone in an abaya is disrespecting anybody else’s sensibilities.

Now that you’ve read this far, hark back on the previous paragraph. Do you see any men’s clothing? Astonishing! And that is why Centaurus putting a female icon next to their ‘request’ is problematic and offensive. Wearing respectful clothes is somehow nearly always a woman’s prerogative. Nobody thinks twice about men wearing trousers in public, but women in trousers is so much tauba-tauba. Men are going around in shorts all the time but woe betide the woman who doesn’t wear a dupatta (the first people to jump down one’s throat will be women too, to add insult to injury). Nobody polices the respect value of men’s clothing because somehow the only ‘respect’ in that equation is due to men, from women. I should be wearing certain clothes so as not to incite unwelcome reactions in men. We all know this is nonsense because there is plenty of research to show that women are attacked, molested or otherwise disrespected by men no matter what they wear.

Respect is something women and men both deserve, and in any society should be equally safeguarded for both. Instead of policing our clothes, we should be policing our minds. Don’t be someone who places their yardstick of offense on the superficial external. That is an intellectually lazy kind of morality, pointing at someone’s clothes or lifestyle and saying you are transgressing some invisible boundary of right and wrong. One universally popular story about Sheikh Saadi is the one where he was invited to a grand banquet, but been he arrived in an ordinary, old robe nobody let him in. He returned in a garment much fancier, and was promptly ushered in with great ceremony. The sheikh then sat down and proceeded to dip the arm of his robe in some food, as if he were feeding it. Startled, his hosts asked him what he was doing. The sheikh replied, I am feeding the robe, because Saadi wasn’t invited, his clothes were. Let’s respect each other by not cheating each other, by holding the door, by queuing quietly, by returning lost wallets, by saying please and thank you, by kindness to strangers, by driving responsibly. The cloths, as Saadi points out, don’t matter. The person inside the clothes does.