A SOCIO-LEGAL BREAKDOWN OF THE DRESS CODE AND ITS IMPACT ON WOMEN
Author: Aseema Memon, III year of B.L.S.,LL.B. from Rizvi Law College
In a utopian civilization, any human being, regardless of gender, has the autonomy to wear the clothes they deem acceptable. They rightfully deserve to wear what they want, when they want and how they want, regardless of how promiscuous or conservative it may seem, merely because they exist. Unfortunately, we live in a solemn reality. Many evolutionary psychologists and sociologists believe that the social system of the world at large is that of patriarchy which subjugates women at various levels – political, economic, social, and cultural[i]. This implies that the fundamental right of expression for women vis-a-vis items of clothing is a colossal complication for our society.
What is a dress code?
A dress code is defined as “a rule prescribed to items of clothing to create uniformity and discipline”. It elucidates what clothes are deemed acceptable and what clothes are outright rejected based on social and cultural purposes, circumstances and situations. The initial idea of a dress code in formal institutions such as schools, universities, offices, etc was to create a sense of uniformity and discipline. It can even be attributed as a way to meet the demands of capitalism, industrialization and national state formation due to the economic role it plays[ii]. However, the dress code becomes a cause of concern for women when it is too stringent, objectifying, unnecessary and demeaning. It can be seen as a tangible manner to control and manipulate them on a profoundly emotional level.
How does a dress code affect women?
1. Socialization into gender roles: Since the day humankind came into existence, it has divided itself into two principal categories: men and women. With this comes a difference in behaviour expectations and gender roles. From the tribal era of male hunters and female gatherers to the current fourth wave of feminism, the gender role is unfortunately still in existence. It is socialised from generation to generation through our culture, mores, values, folkways, etc. The dress code is a tangible example of the same. It is mandated that men wear pants and women wear skirts. If you dare to go against this custom, you do not fit in. This has a devastating effect on people’s individuality and personality development because it takes away their freedom of choice, especially if they belong to the LGBTQ+ community as they have to deal with further stigma and prejudice.
2. Affect on interaction with own body and severe mental health issues: A woman is constantly mandated on the apparel that she is "supposed" to wear. This starts from the day she is born till the time she breathes her last. An archetype of this is when she commences her schooling and endeavours to become a valuable member of society. She is compelled to cover her body so that “the boys are not distracted". It is immediately imbibed in her that her education is less valuable than a boy's hormonal infatuation. This could play a vital role in creating an inferiority complex, body dysmorphia and severe internalized misogyny.
3. Attachment of morality to clothing and justification of rape culture: If a woman covers her body, she is assumed to be good-natured, traditional and conservative. On the other hand, if she wears anything provocative, she is considered to be more attractive, sexually appealing and more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted as proven by studies.[iii] The first question a female victim of rape, molestation, sexual assault, sexual harassment, etc hears when she gathers the courage to file a complaint against her perpetrator is “What were you wearing?” The blame gets shifted from the raper to the rapist, further discouraging other rape victims to come forward and sharing their trauma in the hope to receive sound and reasonable justice from the appropriate court of law. This is how something as simple as clothes fundamentally influences the thinking of people on a conscious as well as subconscious level.
Key Illustrations and Legal Analysis
To understand the gravity of the dress-code issue, it becomes imperative to mention some outrageous real-life occurrences regarding the same. A few of them include a young girl named Neha Paswan killed for wearing jeans in Uttar Pradesh[iv], Norway’s women’s beach handball team being fined for wearing shorts instead of bikini bottoms during a game in the Summer Olympics[v], and Paralympics athlete Olivia Breen being told by a female official at a long jump game that her briefs were too short and inappropriate[vi].
Vital international case law here is that of Mottu vs. MacLeod and others[vii] where the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal ruled in favour of Andrea Mottu in a workplace sexual discrimination lawsuit. She was a part-time waitress whose job required her to sell drinks near the entrance of the establishment. The issue arose when her employer, Cass Macleod mandated her to wear a bikini top for a beach-themed fundraiser. When she protested against the same, she was told she could either wear the costume including the bikini top or choose to not work the shift and be unpaid, specifically highlighting that she could be replaced for the shift. The Tribunal held that the employer had discriminated based on sex, humiliated his employee and caused a negative psychological impact.
In India, a common belief held is that sexist dress codes are legally justified because the Indian Penal Code has provisions regarding obscenity under sections 293 and 294 of the same and a woman dressing immodestly falls within that category. In truth, this ideology is nothing but a fallacy.
“Obscenity is not defined in any law including the Indian Penal Code. People can say short clothes cause depravity in the minds of the young, but they are just taking things too far. Firstly, as long as an act is not causing a public nuisance, it doesn’t count as indecency or obscenity. Secondly, if one thinks that a person is causing a public nuisance, you call the police, and not take up the case yourself.”
-Advocate Geetha Mohan[viii]
It is evident that this dress code problem is genuine, is scarring the psyche of people and is something that must be eradicated. It is not a trivial matter since it has a sociological and psychological impact on our culture which gets passed on from one generation to another creating a vicious pathway of toxicity and unbridled hate. Thus, it can be said that our world cannot move forward if our thoughts remain backward. Change and progress is truly the way forward. It is imperative that awareness about this issue is spread and strict laws are created which ensure that no one is allowed to discriminate on dress codes and uniforms solely on the criteria of gender.
[i] Preeti S Rawat, Patriarchal Beliefs, Women’s Empowerment, and General Well-being, VIKALPA VOL. 39, NO. 2, 43 (2014).
[ii] Dress Codes, ENCYCLOPEDIA OF CLOTHING AND FASHION, (SEP. 22, 2021), https://www.encyclopedia.com/fashion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dress-codes.
[iii] Kim Johnson et.al, Dress, Body and Self: Research in the Social Psychology of Dress, FASHION AND TEXTILES 1, 20, (2014).
[iv] Geeta Pandey, The Indian Girl Killed for Wearing Jeans, (JUL. 27, 2021) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-57968350.
[v] Caroline Radnofsky, Norwegian Women’s Handball Team Fined for Not Playing in Bikinis, NBC NEWS, (JUL. 20, 2021, 07:53 PM), https://www.nbcnews.com/news/sports/norwegian-women-s-beach-handball-team-fined-not-playing-bikinis-n1274453.
[vi] Jennifer Hassan, Paralympian Olivia Breen ‘left speechless’ after official says sprint briefs were ‘too short’, THE WASHINGTON POST, (JUL. 20, 2021, 09:35 AM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/olympics/2021/07/20/paralympian-olivia-breen-shorts-controversy/.
[vii] Mottu vs. MacLeod and others, NO. 98, (2004) BCHRT 76.
[viii] Rajitha Menon and Krupa Joseph, No Law Allows Dress Policing, DECCAN HERALD, (OCT. 08, 2019, 07:42 PM), https://www.deccanherald.com/metrolife/metrolife-cityscape/no-law-allows-dress-policing-767008.html.