The Good Girl’s Dress Code: How schools police girls’ bodies in the name of modesty

It’s problematic that most schools reinforce society’s ideas about what girls should and shouldn’t wear to be considered ‘decent’.
The Good Girl’s Dress Code: How schools police girls’ bodies in the name of modesty
The Good Girl’s Dress Code: How schools police girls’ bodies in the name of modesty
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When gender based violence erupts on our TV screens, as it did recently with instances of molestation in Bengaluru, we react in shock. What does it say about a society where such acts have become routine? The shell of silence surrounding sexual violence needs to be shattered. As a first step towards a more honest conversation, we bring you “Talking Gender”, a series of articles on the fundamental problems of the collective mindset on gender.

Most of us remember school years with nostalgia: whispered conversations about crushes, dreams about the future and the charm of simpler times. But Bengaluru-based Pallavi’s memories are marred by an incident which reminded her how she would always carry the burden of gender norms.

When Pallavi was in class 12, she and her friends went to the canteen to buy something to eat. She was wearing a salwar kameez and dupatta, her school uniform. It rained, and because none of them were carrying umbrellas, they got drenched, which miffed their class teacher. She sent the girls to the supervisor.

What happened next shocked Pallavi and her friends: the supervisor accused them of getting wet in the rain on purpose so that they could ‘entice’ the boys from an adjacent school. “She then proceeded to comment on our undergarments and how they were too flashy,” narrates Pallavi.

The supervisor suspended the girls for a day as punishment for their ‘deliberate’ act. “It was humiliating but also so absurd that my mother thought I was lying because I didn’t want to go to school the next day,” Pallavi says.

In light of the multiple incidents of alleged molestation that happened in Bengaluru on New Year’s Eve, there has been plenty of debate on security and responsibility. And as it often happen, there was a set of voices that indulged in victim blaming: “This is what is going to happen when women dress this way and go to places they aren’t supposed to, at times they aren’t supposed to.”

Image for representation, via PTI

The problem is not new, but the culture of policing women’s bodies gets internalised very early on in safe and trusted environments in the name of ‘safety’ and ‘discipline’. School uniforms, while creating a level-playing ground, also place more emphasis on nuances (read length of the skirt and how tight the outfit is) of girls’ clothing, enforced further by school authorities.

23-year-old Riya* for instance, recalls how her teachers at an Anglo-vedic school in Chennai would tell girls that the length of their pinafore should be below the knees. “They’d say they were telling us this like a mother would. And when the uniform changed to salwar kameez with dupatta in class 9, it was about how tight the kameez was, if the sleeves were short or if the dupatta was covering our chests,” she says.

The scrutiny doesn’t end there.

21-year-old Shreya*, who went to a school in Bengaluru, shudders at the memory of the routine morning checks, not only to ensure that their pinafores weren’t above knee-level but also that they were wearing shorts underneath it. “We would have to form a line before entering the building, pull out our shorts and show it to the teachers or students representatives. The ones wearing shorter-shorts or not wearing one would always be asked to stand out of class or given a warning,” she narrates.

Manohar GJ, principal of MCC Higher Secondary School in Chennai, says girls in his school are encouraged to wear shorts under their pinafores so that they do not feel "uncomfortable" while moving around. The prescribed length of the pinafore, of course, is below the knee. “It is always better to be dressed modestly so that the opposite sex (boys) don’t find an opportunity to pass comments,” Manohar explains.

When asked whether the onus for not passing comments should be on boys rather than girls, he says that boys generally have a "stronger and more ferocious personality" as compared to girls.

“When they (boys) want to do something, they will. So many cases have happened (like Swathi’s) where men have gotten violent when they haven’t got what they wanted. Students are young and when they enter teenage, they feel attraction towards the opposite sex. We have to keep that in mind also,” he maintains.

While the school does not have sex education or gender sensitivity classes, the girls are spoken to separately by the women teachers. “They tell girls about how they should dress, to be careful, to not get carried away. The boys are also counselled by the male teachers where they are told about how to speak to girls in a safe place and not in a secluded area,” Manohar says.

Image for representation, via PTI

Manohar is not the only one who believes that ‘dressing modestly’ can help girls be safe. In a patriarchal society which is still struggling to accept the woman’s agency and right to consent, girls who do not fit the mold of ‘decently dressed’ are often seen as inviting harassment or being ‘easy’. Disturbingly, this too finds roots in school.

Riya recalls how there was a girl in her school who wore a fitted kameez, compared to the loose ones other girls would wear. “My classmates considered her spoilt. I too had a boyfriend, but was considered nicer and more responsible, whereas her character was called into question. Otherwise too, if a girl wore more ‘fashionable’ clothes and wasn’t the studious goody-two-shoes, people acted as if their suspicions about her were confirmed,” she says.

Manohar’s argument about students being comfortable when modestly dressed also falls flat for Sneha, who recalls having to wear knee length socks and a closed collar button in the Mumbai heat. The latter wasn’t necessary for boys. Nor does the argument hold for 24-year-old Mihir, who wanted to wear pants as he was teased and bullied about the hair on his legs in class 7, when the Bengaluru school he studied at prescribed shorts.

This is not to say that uniforms themselves are a bad idea. Sriram Ayer, founder and CEO of NalandaWay Foundation, an NGO that works with children through art, says that uniforms are important to keep class differences at bay and give students from varied backgrounds a level-playing field. However, he says it’s important to maintain the difference between discipline and policing.

Sriram also points out that school authorities alone cannot be held responsible for enforcing these codes. “Parents tend to welcome such rules, thinking it will prevent their boys from getting ‘distracted’ and girls from being ‘teased’,” he says.

Dr C Satish, Director of the Paavai Group of Schools, has been in education management for 33 years now. He says that students should wear what they are comfortable with, except when it is inappropriate for the classroom or objectionable to the parents.

“A little above the knee or below the knee doesn’t make a difference. But because the school is partly residential and students wear what they want after classes, parents sometimes ask us to monitor them for their safety. That’s the only time we intervene, telling them to change before they go for outings. Or if they are wearing something flimsy or say, which has inappropriate language printed on it. Then we just ask them to change,” he says.

Image for representation, via PTI

Sriram points out how these ideas, perpetuated by parents as well as schools, become ingrained in the students’ impressionable minds, including girls. 

“We are basically telling girls that it is their responsibility to not be abused. The impetus on boys to be good people who do not abuse is not as much. We think that ‘decent’ clothing will keep women safe, when in reality it doesn’t matter what she is wearing. Even girls internalize this,” he argues.

He also says that instead of seeing attraction between teenagers as something bad, it is essential to inculcate sensitivity and friendship between genders during that time. “This segregation has an adverse effect on boys as well. Often, boys end up abusing and objectifying girls around them only to earn peer approval. This is just unhealthy,” he maintains.   

(*Names changed on request)

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