Don’t tell me How to Dress to Teach

2 Feb

There can be no greater sign of infantilising a people if they have to be told what to wear as adults. Four girls at a college in Bhiwani were fined, even if it was a nominal sum, because they chose to wear jeans and T shirt at college, apparently to prevent eve -teasing. Apparently the college has a dress code, almost a uniform.

 

This raises at least four clear issues that are vital to the success of our higher education system, and yet not included in discussions about curriculum, pedagogy or standards. First, is the issue of treating our students as children. If they cannot chose what to wear at college, and of course they rarely chose what to study, then how is higher education preparing them for life? If they have a teacher, classroom, textbook, timetables and uniforms – then what is higher about this education. Students at college are called boys and girls, treated like children, expected to conform and certainly not expected to follow their own paths of learning. There have been stories reported from other colleges where girls were sent back home for the crime of not having worn a dupatta/stole. These words reek of a command and control culture that has a role only in the previous century’s assembly line processes. I have given a guest lecture at a business school -residential – where the students were in uniform. This does not augur well for the ‘soft skills’ requirements that are essential for employability and economic prosperity. The students are left incapable of independent decision making, they are unable to process the social consequences of their decisions.

 

Second, is the issue of eve-teasing. Logic and reason totally collapse under the premise that eve-teasing must be stopped by the victims, not by those who do harass and molest women. It is only those rob that are jailed, those who kill that are put on death row, but those who molest may continue to do so, stopped merely by the tents the women are asked to don. The victims have been asked to dress differently, nothing is asked of the perpetrators. This is clearly a failure of thinking, and of the connect between thinking, decision making and action. With such faulty logic will policy makers and executives of the nation be trained. Can we expect any better of them at work then?

 

Third, is the issue of gender. While the dress codes were designated decades ago, they seem to be inherently inconsistent. While the women are asked to dress in traditional Indian wear, the men are not asked to regress in time. They are free to wear clothes designed for modern convenience, clothes that have evolved with time for the needs of the day. This is not to call for all to regress, merely to point out that the higher education system has such poor governance guidelines that such gender inequities are built into college policy. Not only a failure of current governance, but a poor precedent for the future too. In addition to sending a signal to the next generation of college administrators that such sloppy thinking, even in contravention to Indian law, is acceptable in running educational institutions.

 

Fourth, is the issue of freedoms. Steadily various freedoms are being eroded, and this happens in small ways such as dress. School teachers in a part of the country were told to wear jackets over their sarees to prevent the children from looking at them inappropriately. Again a failure of the system to identify and work with the problem. If the children have mental health issues and are unable to exert self control then they need help. The dress cannot be the issue. And the freedom to dress as they choose cannot be curtailed. Similarly, parents were told to dress differently when dropping their children off to school. Aesthetic offense cannot be a reason to censor dress. This is again about seeking to control, rather than resolve. Personal freedoms are at the core of a civil society and formal norms destroy more than they save.

 

It is true that dress codes are important in professional settings. They set standards, they establish norms. When teachers dress well it shows their effort. Most workplaces establish dress codes, and invest in ensuring that the codes are fair. Clothes are a signalling mechanism – school uniforms have a purpose – to ensure equity, uniformity. But as one grows older, one has to learn to deal with the differences. The solution does not lie in greater policing or stronger rules. The solution in a civilised society is always in a strong institutional culture, well designed guidelines, well placed signalling mechanisms and the freedom to make small mistakes and self correct. In this we expect our higher education institutions to lead.

 

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