I’d been with my books, reluctant to study despite the threat of upcoming exams hanging over my head; when an old friend I knew from my school days called. What I hadn’t expected was an impassioned rant about the oppression that she was subjected to at her college, a premier institution back home.
For months, her college had been policing the dress code for women: starting with restrictions on hairstyles and sleeveless clothes before progressing to Kurtis’s length and exact model to be worn by students. ‘Female security guards’ were hired to ensure that the code was being adhered to. They vulgarly mocked students who were not dressed as per their standards.
Students were often sent home to change their clothes and frequently miss classes while being in college as punishment. The situation took a turn for the worst when students were told that they would be unable to make good marriages if they continued to ‘disturb the male population.’ Enraged students flocked to the streets by the dozen, in silent protest of these oppressive measures adopted by the faculty.
While she told me this, all I could think of was this was just the latest of a disturbingly prevalent pattern of governance seen in educational institutes worldwide.
Almost every female student, including myself, has been called out at least once, on what she was wearing.
One of the earliest recollections was from when I was in fourth grade. A teacher had pulled me out of the assembly line for not wearing a white slip (it was cream-colored) under my uniform. I remember her screaming at me in front of everyone – all my classmates, other classes, the rest of the staff. She only stopped when someone pointed out I was crying. When my mother reported her, they told her that although the teacher could have handled it better, her intention had been righteous. Much later, at a different school, the principal would give us monthly lectures on how young women were expected to comport themselves in a stately manner, and how anything else would ruin our lives forever.
Dress codes are universally stated for both sexes; however, the code is far more stringent and unyielding for women, with several restrictions on apparel and hairstyles. Contrary to this, there are very few rules that apply specifically to men. The uniform of young boys includes shorts that do not reach the knee; however, women are shamed if they wear skirts that do not extend well below the knee.
The ostensibly provided reason for these dress codes is the students “safety”, which is misguiding. It implies that safety is an extension of the clothes you wear.
The truth is far more brutal: Dress codes are used to monitor the visibility of women.
Dress codes exist to cover up a woman’s body and keep her from ‘distracting’ males around her. Thus, they serve to sexualize and objectify girls by its very existence, teaching them that their bodies are not natural and should be shamefully hidden away. Dress codes, although stated for girls, in reality, are for males.
Sexist dress codes absolve males of any responsibility insinuating that women must behave a certain way to deserve even basic dignity, giving way to rape culture and victim shaming at a young age.
They are informally enforced, in the form of body shaming. The prominent influence of pop culture in our daily lives has led to women being sorted into two mutually exclusive categories, ‘promiscuous’ and ‘dignified,’ each with their own set of traits.
The correlation of a woman’s clothes, especially the length of skirt or sleeves, with her morality is an archaically condemning concept that should be foreign in this world of equality and empowerment.
A long-overdue change is coming, but as all wars fought in the name of equality, this, too, is an uphill battle.
Written by Maha Padala for MTTN
Edited by Andrea Xavier Gonsalves for MTTN
Featured image by https://georgiastatesignal.com/
Artwork by http://www.npr.org