A Kerala women’s college, run by a Muslim educational trust, has run into online ire for its imposition of a dress code on its students — no tight jeans, short tops or leggings. Only salwar or churidar, and if Muslim students want, a headscarf, but no full-face veil. Also, all students should throw away the shawl and wear an overcoat.
Well, an overcoat replacing a shawl, or even a dupatta, is not a bad idea considering how irritating it gets to keep flinging back a dupatta or shawl whenever it falls off. An overcoat is certainly more manageable.
But that’s only the detail. The bigger question is whether there should be any uniform or dress code at all. Should there be any restrictions whatsoever on what one should wear or not to college?
Silly question, isn’t it? Of course, there shouldn’t. Women and girls should be allowed to wear what they want, and if you can’t handle their sartorial choices, well that’s your problem. So, you fix your gaze, instead of asking the girls to fix their wardrobe.
Alas, it’s not that simple. There is a middle path between the two polar positions — one where you can wear what you want with no questions asked, and one where you can’t wear what you want.
To explain, I’ll go back to 2010, and shift the lens from Kerala, much further north to Haryana. That year, I was in Mewat, a Muslim-dominated, largely rural district in Haryana, for a story. Mewat has one of the worst literacy rates in the country, and is very conservative by even so-called “moderate” Muslim standards. And I was sent to cover a quiet but a significant change happening in Mewat. The many madarsas of Mewat were modernizing. In their own way. Without the help — some call it interference — of the government.
These madarsas were teaching English, Maths and Science, alongside Islamic studies. And surprise, surprise — these madarsas were co-educational! Girls and boys were studying in the same class, but were segregated in the classrooms and the girls were wearing a hijab. Villagers were setting up their own schools (not madarsas) teaching modern education, but here too, the boys and girls were segregated and the girls were in hijab. (You can read the story by clicking this link)
I can already feel eyebrows raised at the segregation and the hijab bit. But wait. Try to understand the context. I spoke to liberal academicians and researchers who’ve done a lot of work in Mewat. They lauded these madarsas and schools, and actually credited the segregation and hijab aspects for the educational revolution happening in the district. For, were it not for these conditions, the parents would have never sent their girls to school. The madarsas and the modern schools were being considerate and mindful of the sensibilities and the ethos of conservative Muslim families. Between the need for education, and the freedom to wear what you want, they chose the former and succeeded. If education is being held hostage by sartorial compulsions, then maybe education can sort of allow those sartorial compulsions, in order to be successful in its ultimate goal of producing informed citizens. Once the students become informed citizens, they will be able to exercise their freedom to wear what they want.
Coming back to the Kerala women’s college, according to news reports, 50 per cent of the students and 40 per cent of the parents are happy with the school’s rules. I have my doubts about this survey, unless an independent agency does the same survey and comes up with similar results.
But if the college is truthful about the results, well then 50 per cent and 40 per cent are indeed big numbers. And in the interest of education, maybe we can go soft in our angst over the new dress codes. If the new dress codes are followed by an increase in the number of applications for admissions to the college, a decrease in the drop-out rates of students, and an increase in the diversity of students in the college (more poor families sending their girls to college, and more students of different communities), then maybe we should not get so angry about the dress restrictions.
But if the new rules have no effect whatsoever, and have been put in place because the management deems them right, then we can certainly question their intent.
I’ll go back in time again. In 2004, a Hindu acquaintance of mine from a small village in eastern UP had secured admission to both Delhi University and Jamia Millia Islamia. But she took admission in the latter. I asked her why not DU. And she told me her parents put her in Jamia, because they thought she would “suffer less of a culture shock” in Jamia than in DU. She told me that they thought DU’s environment was more “advanced” than Jamia and that she would feel more comfortable at the latter. In other words, the girls in DU were too Westernised for her to deal with. Jamia would be more at home.
That acquaintance of mine would mostly wear salwar kameez or a pair of loose-fit jeans and a long top on the Jamia campus. But she was happy. A book and pen in hand for her was more important than the size of a top or the fit of a pair of jeans.