One might argue that school dress codes are essential to make sure everyone is appropriately dressed and there cannot possibly be any negative aspects associated with ‘appropriate’ public behaviour. Although, this case for schools dress codes, be it in the form of uniforms or restrictions imposed on civilian clothing within school premises, is severely weakened when we look at the fact that what is appropriate is cultural and in a severely sexist culture like ours, what is appropriate is affected by the inherent sexism, misogyny, and patriarchal beliefs we foster and promote collectively.
This piece doesn’t discuss whether school dress codes should exist. It solely focuses on how school dress codes that exist today and the way they are enforced are sexist and ultimately sexualise and objectify girls who are subjected to them.
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The major issue with school dress codes is that they solely exist for girls or are selectively enforced. Case in point, most schools that have skirts for girls and shorts for boys as their respective uniforms, generally have a ‘knee-length or below’ rule for the girls and no such rules for boys. Though most boys’ shorts are worn at an above-knee length, it is accepted without being shamed or unasked-for lessons being imparted on morality and modesty.
School dress codes are generally about covering up the bodies of girls so that they do not act as a distraction to boys or ‘provoke’ them. When girls in schools are asked to cover themselves up or dress more modestly, it gives out the message that their bodies are inherently sexual and provocative. This can make young girls perceive themselves in sexual terms, even if they don’t fully comprehend the concept. It also teaches them to take shame in their bodies and to treat it as not something natural, but something that is deeply shameful and must be hidden away.
dress codes give out the message that the bodies of young girls are inherently sexual and provocative.
Apart from this, putting the onus on girls to not seem provocative to boys, places the responsibility of shielding oneself from sexualisation, objectification, and harassment on ourselves, instead of the perpetrator. It sets in stone, in the minds of young girls the already culturally accepted idea that boys are biologically hardwired to objectify and harass and it is up to girls to exist in public spaces in a way that doesn’t not draw any attention to themselves or doesn’t give boys any reason to subject them to objectification and harassment.
Dress codes, although almost always selectively enforced on girls, are about boys and our patriarchal beliefs regarding them. It teaches boys that they aren’t accountable for their behaviour and it is up to girls and women to act a certain way to be treated with dignity and respect. Although this may seem trivial, this idea is what later manifests and becomes the basis for our collective victim-blaming behaviour and rape apologism.
Toxic ideas like these when incorporated from a young age can institutionalise discrimination. It is extensive conditioning like this which shapes our patriarchal idea about women and pushes us to control how they exist in public life.
Most schools change the dress codes for their female students, as they go on to higher grades. Pinofers or skirts that are allowed until primary school are switched for salwar-kameez, complete with either dupattas or jackets. The intention behind this widely followed switch is to get girl students, who will soon hit puberty to wear ‘modest’ clothing that doesn’t show any skin and covers their breasts.
Most schools change the dress codes for their female students, as they go on to higher grades.
Dupattas pulled back, either accidently or while playing a sport or doing a tedious task, will certainly fetch sexist remarks and yelling and shaming by teachers. Schools have started to implement this switch for girls as young as 11-years-old, giving out the message that pubescent girls should be highly aware of their bodies and how boys might come to see it in a sexual way and telling them it is their responsibility to prevent that.
These uniforms can be highly uncomfortable and impractical in a school environment where students are supposed to engage in various activities and sports, yet we seem to put out patriarchal notions of how girls and women should behave and dress like for the sake of boys over the comfort of female students.
Apart from this, schools also have restrictions on what female students can wear during events or any other occasion when a uniform isn’t requited to be worn. With either restrictions on wearing anything ‘western’ or ‘short’ schools control what female students wear even besides their uniforms. This is also reflected in most school’s policy to not allow students of secondary grades wear civilian clothing on birthdays (which is mostly a norm in lower grades) owing to the fact that they might wear something ‘short’ and numerous schools that do allow it, have female students sent home or force them to change, if the school deems their clothing immodest. Also, clothing for female students for school events that warrant civilian clothing or costume is also picked with the intention of covering-up their bodies as much as possible.
Sujata Nair (54), a teacher for nearly 15 years now, says, “It is not uncommon to see teachers imposing ridiculous dress codes on female students. This is enforcement of dress codes is almost always accompanied by slut-shaming, tormenting the child for not subscribing to standards set for ‘good Indian women’, and making it into a spectacle. I have often seen students crying because of the humiliation they are subjected to when a dress code is selectively enforced. Although, I am yet to see an instance where a male student is subjected to these dress codes”.
It also incorporates in both young boys and girls that women who chose to exist in public, in a certain way, usually defying the norm, deserve to be slut-shamed.
Male students are not subjected to ridiculous dress codes or shamed for making outfit choices that may not agree with everyone because we do not place morality on their clothing. We don’t deem them bad, rogue, or believe they are of flawed characters and have depraved principles, just because they choose to dress a certain way. Which is mainly due to the fact that we don’t as a society wish to control every aspect of how men choose to exist.
Apart from sexualising and objectifying girls, school dress codes that are selectively enforced by mostly sexist teachers, don’t only teach young girls to take shame in their bodies and put the onus of protecting themselves from harassment and objectification on them, but they are also greatly detrimental to their emotional well-being. Enforcement of school dress codes is usually accompanied by anger, shaming, and humiliation because violating a dress code is associated with violating cultural standards and norms set for women, which we hold dear.
The place from which school dress codes come, is violently sexist and deeply patriarchal, thus with it inevitably comes other aspects of sexism and patriarchy – the sexualisation, objectification, and normalised harassment of both, young girls and women alike. Sexualising and objectifying young girls and teaching them to take shame in their bodies is a perpetual, patriarchal cycle that is enforced and re-enforced over and over again.
Apart from the obvious issues it poses for young girls and women, this also eventually contributes to our collective victim-blaming attitudes and the ‘men will be men’ idea that allows men to walk away after engaging in verbal or physical abuse, or any other forms of harassment, stating women detached from Indian culture or biology as an excuse. It also incorporates in both young boys and girls that women who chose to exist in public, in a certain way, usually defying the norm, deserve to be slut-shamed, objectified, sexualised, and even harassed, if it comes down to teaching them a ‘lesson’.
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Normalising sexist practices that do so much harm to the cause of women is what holds us back from being a country that belongs to its women as much as it does to its men. Practices birthed from sexist beliefs and patriarchal ideas have great consequences on the cause of women and the public existence and participation of every individual woman, as well. When it comes to eliminating such practices and beliefs to further the cause of women, no harmful practice or belief is too trivial or no step taken towards remedying it is too small.
Featured Image Source: The Conversation