“No leggings, tight pants… No short kurta… No knot type (backside) tops… No ‘lose hair’ hairdo… No big size stud or ring… No very high heels and no fancy slippers… No patialas/ anarkalis and high fancy dresses with netted designs… No hair colouring… No transparent and short dupattas… No banyan cloth type pant… No designer watch appearing big in size and in different colours…”
What may initially seem like a manual for prison behaviour is in fact a handout meant for female students of Sri Sairam Engineering College in Chennai. This regulation chart titled “Big NO’s for Girls” is a legitimate attempt by the college authorities to control the behaviour of female students. To be sure, this is not an isolated case.
In 2005, Odisha became the first state to make uniforms compulsory for college students as an attempt to answer deteriorating “standards” of clothing in such institutions. Recently at National Law School of India University, Bengaluru a senior faculty member offended a female student for wearing shorts to class and made inappropriate remarks about her character when she objected. Though her classmates condemned the comments and protested, it was a rare resolve against moral policing. What one wonders is, why is there a necessity to enforce dressing norms in educational institutions?
The justification usually forwarded is that dressing norms bring a sense of “equality” and “decency” among students. However, when institutions dictate the terms of dressing, they jeopardize the heterogeneity of the student community. Dressing is often an expression of “self.” Clothing and style of dressing is a clear representation of their state’s culture, climate and family’s practices. A pair of jeans and shirt might be the definition of comfort for some, while it is the traditional skirt for others. Dressing norms in colleges deter these multi-cultural identities.
Many institutions look to balance conservative and liberal (not western) clothing by finding a middle ground through western formal uniform, like the Bar Council of India has recently instructed law colleges to do. While the objective is to be able to “control” those women’s clothing that they find too “revealing”, they may go on to create an environment of discomfort for women who’ve worn ethnic clothes their entire lives.
The decency argument is based in the patriarchal ideas of controlling women’s expression of sexuality. The idea that women’s bodies are sites of societal honour and thus they must responsibly “guard” this honour by covering their bodies is problematic. Patriarchy goes on to suggest that “Crossing the Lakshman Rekha” of dressing results in rape and sexual harassment, thus justifying the crime and bringing in the culture of victim blaming.
Flipping the coin, patriarchy is equally demeaning to men, because it goes on to show that young men are naturally unable to control themselves and their natural instincts hence should not be blamed for their misdemeanor towards women. Hence, burden of responsibility for preventing harrassment passes to women’s clothing choices.
One can clearly see the Indian educational environment attempting to reproduce gender stereotypes which are rooted in patriarchy and male bias. It further also strangles expression of diversity and goes on to maintain unequal power structures. This relentless defense of the status quo unfortunately goes against the very purpose of education, which ideally should be to debate and challenge the existing concept of equality and decency.
Background to the story: On 4th April, a female student of NLSIU, Bengaluru alleged that a professor made remarks on her character for wearing shorts to class. Two days later, as a sign of protest against the teacher’s actions, the entire class wore shorts to class. Following this incident, the Bar Council of India (BCI) issued a circular asking all law schools to implement a dress code for all students.
Why is it important for us to speak about it?
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