Anklets in the Boardroom

Is their jingle out of place among power suits?


Anyway, she made a reasonable presentation - not a spectacular one but an adequate one and then, before she left the room, she went around the table once and shook hands with all present. She was wearing payal (anklets) which made a rather loud tinkling sound that was very hard not to notice. She wasn't doing it for effect. She just wore what she usually wore and was quite unspoilt and oblivious of her surroundings.

I, however, cringed with every jangle that happened with every step, and felt that it wasn't the professional woman thing to do. The chairman of the meeting, known for saying it like it is, sans finesse, looked up as she left the room and muttered loudly, "Where did she come from? Bharatnatyam class?" Some folks, including me, laughed, and the meeting proceeded. But it nagged me. Why did I cringe at the sound of anklets in that environment? I have often worn glass bangles that tinkle as I gesture expansively to make my point in meetings, and somehow never thought it was inappropriate. In fact, had her bangles made as much noise as her anklets had, I probably wouldn't have given it a second thought! The question nagged me: why did I feel that if she wanted to come across as a professional, she shouldn't have worn jangling anklets? And, yet, I couldn't help feeling that I was overreacting.

I called my know-it-all bureaucrat woman friend and explained the entire incident and the nagging feeling to her, hoping she'd make sense of it for me. She exploded and said, "What's with you corporate types that you worship everything from the West? If it were stiletto heels going click-clickclick loudly on the wooden flooring you'd have seen it as a symbol of power and applauded her. But because it is tinkling anklets, you think it's a no-no, and that she is letting down the women's movement to crash the glass ceiling." While the argument threw me, I had to admit that there was logic to it.

Not one to pull punches, my friend went on to ask about the presentation and then asked me whether the jangling anklets would have grated less on my boardroom and feminist sensibilities, had the presentation she made been spectacular. I had to admit that that might have been the case. However, we both agreed that there was a lot of confused cultural coding here. While the anklet is linked with the dancing girl or the seductress in most of our minds, the tinkling of bangles could well be associated with the comforting noise of your hardworking mother making chapattis for dinner.

The cultural codes ofwork attire for women vary from country to country. We have seen the dark suits with the permitted bright jackets or scarves that are the uniform of most women in corporate America. But the colours most of us wear here are a no-no there. What varies more is the definition of modesty at work. Several times I've been asked how come we women who wear saris in India don't feel it is inappropriate to bare our midriffs at work. And then I look at the expanse of bare leg around me and think: "Surely not more inappropriate than that?"

But honestly I can say that it is only in India that you can dress as you please (as long as you go soft on the anklets; but even that can be offset by a spectacular presentation), and not have eyebrows raised or be a victim of the bimbo stereotype. Loads of zari is fine, bright colours are fine, flowers in your hair is fine, any kind of jewellery is fine in even the most formal of corporate world meetings. In fact, unlike in the West, they are even seen as symbols of power in women. It is perhaps the Devi/Shakti worship. In the ardha narishwara stotra, which makes the point that she is equal to the male half, she is described in her shringar splendour: ornate with braided hair, kumkum and hibiscus garlands, sparkling gems blazing in her ears and of course jhanat-kranat-kankana-nupurayai - the jingle jangle of bangles and anklets. Perhaps that explained my cultural confusion about anklets that decorate both the dancing girl and the power woman?