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Should places of worship have dress codes?

August 8, 2007

What is the logic behind the dress codes in places of worship? I tried to see it and came up with these points:

1) The people who run the place of worship feel that the holy place will somehow lose its respectability, importance or divinity if people pray in informal clothes.

2) Other devotees and perhaps also the management of the place of worship are disturbed and distracted when they see people dressed in ways which they themselves do not dress, or are not used to…

3) People believe that God has ordained that people should pray in a certain attire.

That’s what I could come up with…and the conclusion I came to was that the dress codes in places of worship are man-made. After all, don’t we pray in bed, in our homes, in any kind of situation and in any kind of attire? Do we at any point of time feel we are disrespecting God? True, certain religions require you to cover your head even if you are praying at home…but the complete dress code will not apply.

The equation changes the minute you step into a place of worship…a place which is a congregation so to say. Here the rules that govern any public place apply, depending on the society. Dressing for school, the office or to a wedding…each occasion and each place dictates a dress code and a certain way of behavior. In fact a place of worship being a sacred public place generally implies that the dress code could be far more stringent that at other places…

The fact that there is a variation in dress codes in the same religion at different places of worship points to the fact that dress codes are made by man and largely a socio-cultural phenomena. Not that I am saying that it’s wrong. Dress codes make up the very foundation of our society as we understand it.

What prompted me to write this post was the news that a famous temple (Tirupati) is considering a stricter dress code. Though I don’t appreciate their reason for doing so (a devotee and probably others too, was apparently “perturbed by women worshippers wearing what he considered immodest clothes”) the temple is certainly within its rights. The temple has a management, just like any other organisation has, and this management has the authority to set a dress code. I may feel that they should question the devotion of the man who complained because he was distracted by a woman in a place of worship, but if they didn’t, and well, that is their privilege. It’s their temple.

A few weeks ago there was another piece of news on this same subject. The Guruvayoor Temple in Kerala, India, was ‘allowing’ women devotees to wear salwars and churidar-kameez and not just sarees. This is a reflection of the changing social norms. Salwars are now as socially accepted as sarees…and therefore they are being allowed. I think it is a step forward by the temple management because they responded to social trends.

I am sure that in another 30-50 years, if not earlier, even our holiest sites will start to allow western attire…maybe not mini-skirts, but perhaps pants. As society changes, dress codes will change. I do not think it has anything to do with God…in fact in some churches in the west, the changes have already set in.

Today, dress codes are common around the world in all religions…whether in Rome, Indonesia, or the UK. But societal trends will compel religious authorities to change their stand…just like the Guruvayoor temple has changed its stand. The fact that this temple has made this concession, that it’s changing is a healthy sign, and a portent of the future. Every place of worship is meant for the people and if people change, the rules will change. I doubt whether the most radical of traditionalists will be able to able to stop the changes because it’s the masses who pray who will dictate trends.

(Photo credits: Tribuneindia)

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. August 8, 2007 8:57 am

    Nita –

    You and I are both thinking about clothes today. Oh the terror of the ipod pocket.

    But yeah, I think dress codes are certainly man made. And it seems to me like the whole “cover the woman because she is distracting me from worship” bit sais more about the devotion of the man being distracted than it does about the woman wearing the ‘offending’ clothes.

  2. August 8, 2007 9:46 am

    Interesting observations.

    The places of worship are also man-made, it is not necessary to have any place of worship to be constructed in strict certain method. Equally no dress code is necessary infact it is insignificant as you mentioned.

    People are getting less religious/spiritual in true spirit and thus to ‘appear’ religious such dress code and other external signs are used. Probably the managers of the worship places believe that imposing dress code would make devotees religious overnight or believe that devotees who comply with the dress code are ‘religious’. So my conclusion is that to ‘appear’ religious one has to follow the dress code religiously🙂

  3. August 8, 2007 10:08 am

    Aikaterine, yes, its very irritating when temple rules seem sexist in nature. Sure, men have dress codes too, but somehow women are picked on more.

    JV, yes I agree that the dress code exists to make people ‘look’ a certain way. If one thinks of it one realises how hypocritical it all is, and one wishes that temple managements realise that and allow anyone who has true love in his heart for God to enter. But at the same time, there is no way they can make that out so they want to preserve appearances.

  4. August 8, 2007 10:08 am

    off topic, but do you think places of worship would be relevant after 30-50 years ?

  5. August 8, 2007 10:10 am

    In the 60s, when I travelled to Rome, women had to cover their heads and arms and shoulders, in fact going to church back then meant that some form of headcovering was in order, and I remember pinning kleenex to the top of my head as a facsimile headcover. These days when one goes to a Catholic church in Canada no head gear is required. You are correct in your prediction that as social norms change so do clothing restrictions in places of worship alter and modify. In the end though, it is generally a sign of respect that certain attire is required in places of worship. In schools one does not attend class in a bathing suit, etc, so why should it be any different for churches, mosques or temples. At all levels of social activity agreed upon uniforms are worn, all over the world.

  6. August 8, 2007 10:20 am

    Priyank, I think they would be. At least in India. In China they are already irrelevant and some say in Japan too. In the west I am not sure…but i hear that certain parts of america as very conservative about religious tradtiions. But I think you have raised a very relevant point…I wonder if people are going to churches, mosques and temples in lesser numbers because of the strict rules that govern them? Would a relaxation of strict codes increase their numbers? I think that it would…for example that temple which altered the dress code must have done so to attract more visitors.

    Suburban, yes, we have to be practical. I myself resent resent wearing certain kinds clothes (specially for weddings!) but then that is because I am not too fond of wearing sarees. The majority of Indian women do wear sarees…or at least some other form of traditional dress. at weddings its the done thing to wear jewelery (which I don’t like to wear) …but I do wear it as I do not want to stick out.

  7. August 8, 2007 12:30 pm

    Indecent clothing has a Purpose of Attracting.. which might distract behaviour of few weak-devotees in temple… What about some bare chested Sadhus?? or a Digamber Sadhu? Any views on them?

    I guess, Nowadays it’s more of stopping sexual intimacy in a temple.

    It feels great to see temples adopting changes keeping few genuine restrictions in mind.

  8. August 8, 2007 4:23 pm

    There has to be some sort of dress code Nita. There is no limit to obscene dressing and in places of worship at least the focus should be on spiritual aspects and not the physical attributes. I personally won’t mind pants but skimpy clothes must not be allowed. In Jain temples they don’t allow leather garments or accessories and there is a reason for that. Jains believe that all animals are sacred and thus leather is prohibited inside temples, which makes sense.
    In some South Indian Temples men cannot enter if they are wearing anything on the upper parts of their body, which I find strange.

  9. August 8, 2007 4:30 pm

    Bharat, Prerna, I had no idea about men entering bare-chested!!🙂
    Anyway if that it is considered holy, what can we say? I do know however that in Guruvayoor temple men are not allowed to wear pants, they have to wear the traditional dress.

  10. August 8, 2007 9:10 pm

    First, we must remember the church is the House of God and is due its proper respect. I believe churchgoers should present themselves to God, in His House as a privilege and we should dress appropriately, with modesty as the key element to our attire.

    I understand what you said about praying at home and in bed and various other places, but those places are not deemed Houses of Worship. For those who do not like to dress modestly, please consider making the sacrifice for the one hour you will spend in Church. Offer it up as part of your penance. If God isn’t worth dressing nice for one hour, why bother going to Church at all, unless you are going to ask for something for yourself.

    Why must everything center around what we want, what we like, why can’t we consider what God may like for a change?

  11. August 9, 2007 2:44 pm

    Who is to say that God wants us to dress any particular way? Who did God inform of his taste in attire? What man did he visit?

    I think the point that NIta is trying to make, and correct me if I am wrong, is that the dress code is a man-made construct. When we enforce dress codes, we are enforcing what we want, not what God wants.

  12. August 9, 2007 3:03 pm

    You are absolutely right Aikaterine, that is what I am saying. Dress codes have absolutely nothing to do with God. It is not God’s will, but man’s will.
    As you rightly said God has certainly not visited any person to tell him of his preferences…and in any case He created us without any clothes…
    I think this is the reason why many people become angry when those who run churches and temples enforce a dress code….because they try to say that they are following the will of God.
    Ofcourse, the reasons for dress codes in any place may be perfectly valid, but this does not mean that they are made by God or by anyone who has presumed to have got a message from God.

  13. August 10, 2007 12:25 pm

    aikaterine: God has said nothing to us!!! isn’t it?

    Whatever we are doing is as per our will or our community’s will.. It’s we or our community deciding what is good or bad to God… he he

  14. August 10, 2007 1:39 pm

    Exactly, I would never, ever be so presumptuous as to declare that I know exactly what God wants. I actually feel odd using the name God. Who is to say what word we should use. I find it odd that so many people in this world claim to have True knowledge of what ‘God’ or ‘Allah’ or ‘the Gods’ or the ‘Infinite Consciousness’ wants.

    Not that community rules are bad, they have a place. Let’s just not claim that they are ‘The Will of God’. Too many atrocities have been committed with that logic. After everything is said and done, It never leads anywhere good.

  15. Rajesh permalink
    September 17, 2007 12:17 pm

    When it comes to the places of worship there are people to shout against the dress code. Try to enter some of the hotel in cities…. They follow a stricter dress code. Ethnic wears are not allowed. Living in India, I would love to wear the traditional dress and if there is an Indian Restaurant that would not allow people in traditional dress, I think the restaurant should not get license.

  16. July 28, 2014 4:35 pm

    I am advised by elders to wear saree to temples. I don’t understand how wearing a saree will make God happier.

    Lovely Post!

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