By the Gender Circle
On 4th April, 2016, the NLSIU third year classroom witnessed the shaming of a batchmate on the basis of her clothes. She had worn shorts to a class lecture and was asked to dress ‘properly’. There were analogies drawn to ‘children having sex in front of their parents’. The exchange ended with the Professor casting aspersions on her character and refusing to engage any further. Following this, students responded by coming to class wearing shorts in solidarity. The episode evoked strong media responses which led to a discussion across colleges about the need for a dress code itself.
On 7th April, 2016, the Bar Council of India sent a notice to the Registrars and Principals of law colleges. The notice highlighted a decision made regarding uniform dress codes across colleges. The notice recounted that the meeting referred to was on 18th October, 2015. It was said that the ‘standard of dresses by the students of law all over the country is gradually detracting’ and ‘this does not give impression of proper dress code discipline especially for the professional education’. The BCI said that it preferred a dress code consisting of white shirts with trousers, but left the decision making to individual colleges.
On 18th April, 2016, our college authorities sent across a notice discussing the BCI meeting held on 18th October, 2015 and stated their desire to have a meeting with the representatives of Student Bar Council on this issue.
At the very onset, we would like to highlight how this notification has to be seen within the context of events. The ‘professional’ attire argument put forth here cannot be seen in isolation from the arguments regarding distraction by and sexualisation of women. The nature of structural discrimination is insidious in that it seeps through every aspect of our lives and in the context of our discussion we need to give an increased importance to this fact since clothing and sexuality (especially of women and sexual minorities) have been linked since time immemorial. It is for this reason that it would be naive to believe that the idea behind dress codes is absolutely devoid of a gendered dynamic.
We would like to discuss possible justifications for dress codes and colleges. We would then like to analyze whether they outweigh the harms that arise or whether these are legitimate in and of themselves.
But if we were okay with it in school, why do we suddenly feel that dress codes are a problem?
As students in college, we feel that our ability to conceptualise and question certain expectations has increased and we have greater agency and freedom to engage with this issue. Colleges are fundamentally different from schools. In schools, we are taught to abide by certain principles such as treating all students equally. Here, uniforms would play a greater role in furthering this. The same goal is of course equally important in college. But the nature of the institution now encourages us to discover other ways to achieve this goal and to not conflate sameness with equality. Class inclusion cannot be solely redressed by imposition of dress codes, usually it is a half hearted superficial attempt. Institutions should focus on accessibility of equal learning opportunities and comprehensive modes of teaching which take into account various backgrounds of students instead of catering to a select bunch of students from elite backgrounds. Reducing activities which can only be availed of by paying extra and encouraging greater efforts on behalf of the student body to have mentorship systems for academics, extra curricular activities as well as emotional guidance will help facilitate inclusion.
Justifications for the dress code could include fostering college unity and pride, to increase inclusion amongst students, to reduce distractions that arise from spending and choosing clothes, to instill ‘professionalism’ and most prominently, to uphold standards of ‘decency’.
The dress code of NLU Delhi as per the Rules and Regulations on our official website is as follows:
“Students are expected to behave in a decorous manner with fellow students in general and with student of the opposite sex in particular, on and outside the campus. Indecorous behaviour with students, Administrative staff or Faculty will be seriously viewed.
Students must wear University Uniform on Tuesdays and when required by the University. Students are expected to dress decently on and outside the campus.”
The first point of analysis is the usage of the ambiguous and loaded words such as ‘decently’ and ‘decorous’. Our cultural vocabulary suffers from a gender bias as words assume new meanings when they are assigned to women. The word ‘decent’ is usually reflective of women wearing more clothes and covering their body; whereas men are expected to look ‘professional’ and to shave. So one is related to sexualization of the body while the other is merely restricted to looking ‘shabby’.
This usage is problematic is that it prescribes antiquated and gendered norms, and also their implementation is seen to have a disparate impact on women and gender nonconforming individuals. Such dress codes allow for value judgements to be on students’ characters on the mere basis of whether their clothes appeal to the society’s sense of morality. Furthermore, there are different standards of decency expected of genders and the inferences drawn from the violations thereof would be biased against certain genders.
The disparate impact on gender nonconforming individuals merits further elaboration. Central to the expression of the genders of nonconforming individuals is their dressing. It is one of the most important means of establishing their self identification and portraying the same to the world. To impose sameness in the name of equality and to take away one of their most valued forms of expression is shortsighted at best, and cruel at worst. We can see various movements across the world in support of this :students at Buchanan High School in Fresno, California switched gender norms for a day not only because they feel like they’re not free to express themselves, but also because they believe that clothing rules shouldn’t be different between genders.
Coming to the argument of the need for a professional working environment and how this will be achieved through a particular type of dressing. ‘Professionalism’ has been seen to be understood as the environment of the corporate sector and courts, however it is very often ignored that universities cannot be grouped in the same category since the essential function of a university is different from that of an office. Whether or not even the latter requires a dress code is a separate battle. It is first important to address the fact that it is misleading to equate universities and offices and then try to apply the same stipulations to both. Even though the university may claim that it isn’t equating our college to a ‘professional’ space and is merely preparing us for what lies ahead, it is still wrong to assume a common future for all which is in such a sector. While no one can dispute the huge number of students opting for corporate jobs each year, it is still wrong to paint all students with one brush and expect them to dress the same. In some sense, the expectation of students to dress in a ‘professional’ manner has the indirect effect of creating an environment where only such aspirations are valued and encouraged to thrive.
Further, even if by some stretch one accepts the contention that universities need to behave like offices, one still cannot take away from the fact that this stipulation automatically creates a hierarchy of expected behaviour wherein those who emulate such characteristics are valued. This restricts the organic development of university spaces and devalues diversity.
An argument which is never formally communicated, but is often the underlying concern about allowing students to choose their clothes is the fear of allowing distractions within the classroom. This is often disguised as an attempt to make certain groups more comfortable in their academic spaces.
This creates an environment wherein students are routinely sexualised without their consent and are made to feel as if they are the root of the problem. 7 The default setting is assumed to be men seeing women, men wanting to harass them, and thus, the onus being on women to take precautions. The underlying assumptions reinforce gender stereotyping and victim blaming.
Students are often told that a small change in their dressing would go a long way in making someone feel comfortable. Students from small towns or marginalized socio economic backgrounds are assumed to be conservative and they are used by universities as objects to further their purposes.This not only makes their access to public spaces conditional but also reflects an extremely paternalistic attitude towards the groups whose comfort is supposed to be achieved.
Now, let us assume a scenario in which a standard uniform was supplied for all genders and we were ensured that there would be uniformity in its enforcement. Would we still have an issue?
The problem that would arise even with such a scenario is that it takes away from how important or integral dressing has both cultural as well as individualized significance.
One’s way of dressing may reflect their individual expression and choices; but also allows one to represent themselves as belonging to a community.
The importance of both expressions is magnified by the fact that the populations of such institutions reflect a homogenous crowd. Such codes would take away from the ability to effectively assert individuality as well as their group identities. Examples of the latter would include students who want to dress in a manner reflective of their traditions, region, religion, culture etc. Students would be forced to conform to a single standard which would clamp down on a sense of belonging amongst students of different groups.
Dressing up is an important part of one’s identity as it is an extension of oneself. Forcing students to give up their expression could be seen as taking away of agency and a violation of dignity. Expression is important for students discovering their identities, especially in terms of gender. Gender is an immensely fluid concept which requires the space, freedom, and time to explore aspects of ourselves without being monitored continuously. Dress codes put gender nonconforming individuals at a distinct disadvantage and could lead to humiliation and stripping away of identities.
In this entire discussion, we cannot disregard the manner of enforcing such rules. It has been seen across colleges that there is an element of shaming and humiliation when people are called out for their ‘inappropriate dressing’. Female students are made to feel less valued than their male counterparts. They are made to feel as if their education is dependant on arbitrary notions of whether they have exposed too much of their bodies or not.
Given the power differential that exists between teachers and students, it becomes almost impossible to have any form of discussion or reasoning in such events.
Till now, we have discussed several justifications and have come to the conclusion that they are not legitimate aims of a university.
Now, one legitimate aim for a university to pursue is that of class inclusion. There will be less competition, stress and expenditure regarding clothing. Clothing will not act as a barrier for student engagement and could possibly reduce the formation of groups on such grounds. Clothing would cease to act as an identifying characteristic of a person.
However, we feel that given the countervailing concerns, the objectives sought to be achieved may be pursued through less restrictive methods. The onus on universities is to identify such methods to pursue inclusion as opposed to taking the easier route of propagating a culture of conformity. A college is a place meant for discovery and learning, not for abiding and blind following.
We are glad that our college is willing to discuss with the student body. We would just like to highlight our concerns with the sudden progression of events regarding uniform dress codes. We hope that the concerns raised here are used for engagement, both by the students and the administration.