First of all, what is a “puan”? Puan (puan chei, puan dum etc) is a piece of full length traditional skirt worn by women to Church (and other important functions) in Mizoram.
Consolidating many of the email feedbacks I received regarding my previous post (also published at BMA Official website, youthim.com and zawlbuk.net) the question opinionated by the the majority would be “Why do women in Mizoram have to wear puan to Church? It’s not like a woman wearing jeans is less favored by God.”
As Ben and popsugar wanted a short post, my reply would be: “The women wear puan for cultural reasons. That is how every society is. Hope you enjoyed reading my article. Have a nice day. Take care.”
However, as one of my esteemed regular commenters Kima-the-other quoted in my previous post, “I think your length is fine because brevity, as attractive as it may be, often leads to over simplistic reductions”, we really need to understand the concept of culture and religion and their amalgamation first before attempting to scrutinize the legality of Church practices conforming to culture.
Unwritten rules and norms are perhaps the most controversial component of any Society. Most people want to live life as they want, not abiding by any such societal rules. They live by the doctrines of “Live and let live” and “It’s my Life”. Everybody, including me, would love to live in such a Utopian society! However, that is not how things are (sadly). Man, no matter where he lives, will have to abide by certain rules and regulations as long as there is a society around him. This has been proven throughout history.
In any situation where there is an assemblage of more than 1 person, unwritten rules and code of conducts are bound to be framed. Just yesterday, I was playing basketball at our newly constructed Chaltlang community basketball court (finally!). One only has to sit back and observe the environs to know what I’m talking about.
Group of guys gathered at the court to play. Even though there are no rules imposed by the community leaders, the youth immediately started framing their own unwritten rules: You cannot play without sneakers. You cannot play with pants. You cannot smoke inside the court. Every game consist of a game of 7 points, where the winners stay and the losing team is replaced by the next team, all on a first come basis.
Rules need to be framed for the fluidity of the whole process so that everyone can collectively reap the maximum benefit. Playing without sneakers and shorts or taking an occassional puff during the game may not hamper the indivual’s talent, but it certainly bothers the others as a mark of disrespect to both the court and the players. Anybody not abiding by such unwritten rules is immediately treated as an outcast, and can even lead to unpleasant situations.
Another example: Drive around Aizawl in a car, and when you reach an intersection/crossroad where two roads converge into one, the cars from both roads usually move into the new road alternatively (you go – I go – you go – I go) on a turn by turn basis. This made things so much easier for everybody, unlike many other places in India especially the metros where driving etiquette is lost in oblivion and everybody fights to cut in at the least space available (Who dares win / Survival of the fittest). In Aizawl, the traffic police never made such a rule that cars must move alternatively at a junction, but people just comply with the unwritten rule. And anyone breaking such a rule is stared at by everyone, some even abusing that person.
Some people just assume that they can do whatever they want since it’s their life. Even in our Indian Legal system, there are the Do’s and Dont’s. If we can do whatever we want with our life, then why are we required by law to wear helmets when driving a two-wheeler, or to that fact, why do we have to compulsorily put on our seat-belts while driving a car? I mean, if we wish to die from an accident because we did not take the safety precautions, who is KPS Gill or Kiran Bedi to tell us how to safeguard our life, right? Wrong. That is not how things work. Like it or not, if you are a part of something, you have to abide by the laws imposed by that something. Period. Even if you sweat blood and toil to create a business empire dominating the World market, the Government will curb your progress and prevent you from reaping the fruits of your hard labour inorder to prevent monopoly.
And similarly we have our Fundamental Rights (right to freedom of speech, right to move freely throughout India, freedom of religion etc) but each of them comes with certain restrictions/limitations. Hence there is no such thing as an ABSOLUTE right in our Constitution. Even an “attempt to suicide” is a criminal offence in many countries! (For the smart-aleckies out there, “attempt to suicide” means the person failed in his mission to commit suicide and is still alive, hence no smart-ass comments like how can you imprison a man who is dead because suicide means blah blah blah).
Who framed our Indian Constitution? Learned people with vast knowledge on this subject. And who settles disputes regarding our Rights? A Supreme Court Judge well versed in the Legal system. Similarly, that is why I suggested our Church leaders should be more proactive regarding the dress code at Mizo Church services outside Mizoram, because they are the ones who know the teachings of the Bible well enough to guide us. As Billy Jason has commented in my previous post, it is indeed one of the important teachings of Christianity to dress up decently for Church services.
But the definition of “decent” differs from culture to culture. Hence society comes up with how one should dress up for Church. Quoting PC Sarkar from a book I’ve just read recently “Christianity in India” published by CSI, “Before the Christianization of India, there must be an Indianization of Christianity”. He said this during the onset of Christianity in India during the 1800’s to illustrate the importance of culture. In many Churches in India, the women wear “sari” because that is what they considered appropriate. Go to a South Indian Christian marriage and you will know what I’m talking about, where the tradition of tying the mangalsutra is in practice. Similarly in Mizoram, women are asked to wear “puan” because that is deemed “decent” according to our culture. All these are in practice, not to label women who don’t abide by such norms as blasphemous, but rather to showcase the importance of the influence of culture and attached values in Christianity. But in such cases where it is Society that imposes the rules, there will always be the conformists and the non-conformists.
Michael C. Howard in “Contemporary Cultural Anthropology” maintains that “Religion is not merely a matter of belief. It also involves institutionalized patterns of behavior – rituals, ceremonies and the like, which expresses and reinforce religious belief”. Another book I’ve just read (yes I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently *grin*) called “Culture and Religion” by Basil Pohlong, talks about the components of traits and drives of man originating from culture which gets embedded in religion. To quote the author, Pg102,
“I would like to point out here that religion cannot exist without culture. Removed from the cultural context, religion becomes merely blind faith in God and fanatic attachment with a set of rituals, beliefs, priest craft etc. Religion in this form has played havoc in the past. Once we separate religion from culture, it is bound to become the most dangerous phenomenon of humankind. A person of culture is characterized by extreme sensitivity. A sensitive person is not only conscious of his/her social and physical environment, but is quick in his/her reactions to whatever happens around him/her.”
By all means, not wearing a “puan” to Church does not mean the person is any less devoted to God. However, when there are no such norms to be followed regarding the dress code, people would definitely start coming to Church dressed up in any way that they wished. “Puan” would become jeans, jeans would become mini-skirts, and mini-skirts would become thongs… because with the abolition of societal rules, there would no longer be a distinction between what is appropriate and what is not. Church services would merely become a pastime for erotic display of bare bodies, because the very word “decent” is nothing but a mere conception of the majority originating from culture.
God gave us the power to reason. We must utilize that gift positively, instead of just trying to question every existing dogma without taking into consideration other important factors first. There are things that people just don’t do in Churches, like farting or eating burgers / pizzas during the sermon.
It is possible for someone to chew on that large chunk of KFC Burger and listen to the sermon attentively at the same time, or it is possible for the person sitting next to you to hold his breath while the smell of your fart subsides. But these are things that people just don’t do; “Respect” is the key word here. And again culture plays an important role. Suppose a certain culture treats farting as the highest sign of showing respect, then things might be different. In some cultures, women wear headscarves to Church as a sign of submission to God. Women and men sit together during the Church service in some cultures while they don’t in other cultures. The Greeks spit on the bride during their Church weddings to bless her [saw it on “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”]. Japanese Christian women probably wear kimonos to Church, I don’t know. Cultural norms vary from place to place.
The bottom line is this: As a Christian it is our moral obligation to dress up decently for Church services, and culture does the job of explaining what that “decent” is. Hence to try and explain Christianity without bringing culture into it, is like trying to describe the colors to a blind man. Hence the reason why women in Mizoram wear “puan” to Church.
Similarly in that lines, wearing revealing clothes to a place of worship is NOT considered as a sign of respect in most (if not all) cultures. To display our bodies vulgarly is not only considered a disrespect to the Church but also a disrespect to our own body and to the other people around us.
[1 Timothy 2:9-10] "I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God."
Having undergone a short stint at a top B-School in India, in the true spirit of MBA culture, I have designed a simple 2x2 chart favored by all MBA students, on the kinds of clothes people wear to Church [The views expressed on the chart are entirely my own, and IIM-Bangalore will not be held responsible or liable to any charges ]
And in order to prevent any smart comments once again [something that my blogposts are not a stranger to], I urge my most respectable readers to be logical and assume what type of clothes would belong to which sex. For example, “Sari” which is under “formal” and “acceptable” is meant for a woman, and will not come under the above two categories if it’s a guy wearing it, hence questions like “What if it’s a guy wearing a sari” is totally unnecessary. The same goes for earrings etc. Your solemnity will be much appreciated. Thank you.
Ps. I think one of the biggest misconception about Christianity is that many people just assume it is a western religion (It never originated from the western World in the first place) and hence people intend to copy western cultures assuming that is how a Christian culture is supposed to be. One should keep in mind the high number of atheists, agnostics and unbelievers within the western civilizations before trying to simulate such cultures in the name of Christianity.
Have a nice day. God bless.