Instead of focusing on the educational infrastructure and cultivating the right educational atmosphere in the state, the Gujarat government, absurdly, is trying to enforce a dress code for women teachers. The move is an attempt to control women’s sexuality, while at the same time it impinges upon the personal freedom to dress according to one’s faith.
A training session held for teachers of municipal corporation schools in Baroda on 11 October, 2013, once again brought to the fore the contentious issue of the dress code for women teachers in Gujarat. Since last year, education administrators in Gujarat’s districts have been seeking to outdo each other in attempts to enforce a dress code for teachers, particularly women teachers for whom wearing sarees has been made compulsory. In the tribal district of Dahod, for example, teachers were told to wear white (men could wear trousers and women were expected to wear sarees). Education authorities have threatened to take punitive measures if the teachers do not comply, generating ‒ if one goes by Facebook (yes, government school teachers in most states have pages) ‒ an intense debate on the “pros and cons” of a dress code. It appears that actions on the part of district level officers were based on the government’s code of conduct for teachers, issued in August 2012, that explicitly stated that women teachers must wear sarees.
At the training session in Baroda last week, ten teachers were pulled up by the newly appointed administrative officer of the school board for not coming to the session in sarees. One of the women chastised by the officer was a salwar-kameez clad Muslim teacher who claimed that she did not possess a saree and was unable to wear one on account of her religious background. The officer then subjected her to a lecture on how just as she believed in Allah for her students too she was like Allah in the classroom. When told that her family would not permit her to wear a saree, the official apparently suggested that a burqa could be worn over it and taken off in school. Apparently all the “errant” teachers were told to go home and return in sarees, which this Muslim teacher could not do and was therefore marked absent for the training session. Anyone familiar with the punitive regulations and surveillance under which government school teachers work, will appreciate the seriousness of this. Since this incident, Muslim teachers have been understandably upset with what they see as humiliation of their community and an infringement of their rights to dress in accordance with their faith. Given the communalised environment of Gujarat, it is not surprising that this particular incident has sparked anger in the Muslim community, which feels that the move to enforce sarees is directed towards Muslim women who usually wear salwar-kameezes. During the course of my interactions with teachers in some of these schools, I saw staffrooms in corporation schools abuzz with discussions on the issue of dress code.
In the Muslim dominated areas of the old city where I have been working over the past week, I have been witness to the ways in which the dress code issue has polarised the teachers. While many Muslim teachers, especially the men who are more vocal, see the incident as yet another attempt by the Sangh Parivar to target and subjugate their community, Hindu teachers are keeping a strategic distance from the debate, at least publicly. Muslim women teachers find themselves torn between the workplace rules and community beliefs. On the one hand as government employees they can be punished for defying the rules and on the other they have to face the ire of their family and community for following these very rules. The day after the incident, women teachers frantically called Muslim leaders with some influence in the school board to check whether the threats of punishment were real. One Muslim male teacher wrote a memorandum which appeared in a Gujarati paper decrying the incident as an assault on Muslims led by the officer who had links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
However, the problem is a little complex, and is more than just an assault by the Hindutva forces on Gujarat’s much-threatened secular public education. At the core of the debate is anxiety over a large number of young, qualified para/teaching assistants or vidyasahayaks ‒working under contract‒ who come to school attired in western clothes, meaning jeans (anathema in most quarters) and short tops (even, to everyone’s horror, sleeveless tops). Many women teachers in Baroda, both Hindu and Muslim, say that the government’s move towards a dress code is directed towards these young vidyasahayaks working in schools wearing indecent clothes. On August 2013, 6,500 vidyasahayaks were handed their appointment letters to which a dress code was appended. This code mandates that women have to wear sarees, and male teachers have to avoid T-shirts or jeans. Along with their other “duties”, the dress code has been included as an enforceable rule. As contract employees of the state, vidyasahayaks in Gujarat, like those in other parts of the country, are subject to greater control and surveillance by authorities. In Gujarat they have been fighting a case in the Supreme Court over their fixed pay of Rs 2,500 per month and temporary status up to five years after which they are supposed to get absorbed as regular teachers. The dress code is one of the many ways to control and threaten these contract teachers. Under the latest rules, the District Education Officer (DEO) and District Primary Education Officer (DPEO) have been authorised to terminate the services of a vidyasahayak who does not comply with any of these rules.
Coercion and control over young contract teachers is a dominant strand in the larger story but one that can be easily manipulated by state authorities to target Muslim women in particular. After all the debate over decent attire is inspired by the image of the ideal saree-clad Bharatiya naari (Indian woman) who is supposed to be a role model for children of the imagined nation and a familiar icon of many RSS moral texts. Two years back, even before the state-wide rule was enforced, a Muslim vidyasahayak in Anand who had requested that she be exempted from wearing sarees to work was refused permission on the ground that the service rules required her to wear a saree. Across the communal divide, however, is a story of a Hindu teacher who has bravely stood up to this government rule. Last week, the Indian Express (10 October, 2013) reported that a teacher in Anand district, Chhaya Upadhyaya, had repeatedly raised objections to the imposition of a dress code for female vidyasahayaks. Upadhyaya, in an open letter to the chief minister, wrote that she had been fighting against this rule for thirteen years, and as far back as 2004, her school was given an adverse report stating that “no teaching was taking place in the school” because some teachers were not in sarees at the time of inspection.
An Unconstitutional Code
The fact is that the salwar-kameez has become the preferred attire of choice for many working women across India. It is especially convenient for teachers working in mofussil and village schools, since they often have to travel distances in the face of inadequate or non-existent public transport facilities, take multiple forms of transport ‒ which are often extremely crowded‒ and cover considerable distances on foot. Additionally, their work with young children also demands mobility and ease of movement. In January 2013, a Baroda-based autonomous women’s organisation Sahiyar Stree Sanghathan presented a charter of demands to the state government (following the release of the Justice Verma Commission report) and demanded that the dress code for teachers be scrapped since it was unconstitutional. The whole issue of imposition of a dress code, as one Muslim woman teacher in Baroda pointed out even as the debate was assuming communal colours, was principally a violation of the constitutional freedoms granted to women.
Control over what women teachers wear exists in both public and private schools. Many elite private schools have written and unwritten dress codes; some new international schools even insist on western wear that is fashionable butdecent. In some new private schools one often sees young women teachers in uniform‒ corporate style dress, black trousers and white shirts, or regulation sarees in urban/semi-urban schools. Not much is known about how these regimes operate in private schools, but over the last few years the dress code issue for government school teachers has raised its head in state after state. “Decency” of attire finds a mention in National Council of Teacher Education’s (NCTE) code of professional ethics for teachers. In fact, proponents of a dress code constantly refer to NCTE guidelines and the Right to Education Act (RTE). For instance, after Upadhyaya’s spirited letter to Chief Minister Narendra Modi last week threatening legal recourse, Anand district officials after meeting both her as well as the Muslim teacher who opposed the saree code, stated that while amendments may be necessary, these would have to comply with the official position that teachers’ attire should be in keeping with “the decorum of the teaching profession”. It is interesting that these new policy frameworks, often associated with a progressive, equitable and social justice-oriented thinking in the education sector, are routinely being cited to justify the dress code as part of some mandated compliance to national policy norms. In Orissa, for example, the government issued a rule enforcing a dress code for teachers ostensibly to curb teacher absenteeism!
The “decorum of the teaching profession” is a convenient ruse to control women who seek employment in the academic domain. While college students have been the focus of dress code regimes for long, the imposition of these codes for teachers is relatively new and linked to anxieties around “loss of decorum” of the teaching profession with the entry of younger women. While the recent imposition of a dress code for teachers in Hindu College in Delhi University met with legitimate outrage, dress code regimes are being enforced in schools all over the country and also, fortunately, been resisted by women. Last year, a woman teaching in a Muslim trust school in Mallapuram, Kerala approached the State Human Rights Commission after she was suspended for wearing a white overcoat over her clothes and not the lime green one mandated by the management (which later clarified that the colour of the coat was not lime green but “asparagus” !)
In 2010, the Calcutta High Court delivered a landmark judgment barring any state-run or state-funded institution from imposing a dress code for teachers. The petition was filed by women teachers of a Singur school, which had enforced a white saree code. The judge rightly pointed out that attention should be paid to developing proper infrastructure and cultivating the right educational atmosphere rather than issuing fatwas on what kind of attire a teacher should wear while attending school.
A Way to Curb Women’s Sexuality
Within educational spaces, issues related to young people’s and especially young women’s sexuality are being debated since the tragic gang-rape of 16 December. Even though conservative and far removed from the Justice Verma report which highlights the need for sexuality education, one hopes against hope that these debates signal the beginning of the end of silence over the subject of women’s sexuality.
Unfortunately within the fractured social spaces of the mohalla, school and administration in Gujarat, the resurgent conservatism regarding issues concerning women’s sexuality has taken the debate to another level of absurdity, frustrating attempts at genuine discussion. While interacting with school teachers and officials, I have heard various justifications for the saree rule ‒ that children (especially young male students) are easily distracted in classrooms when the dupatta flutters under the fan or because of the predilection of young women to wear fashionably tight kurtas; and the contrary view from Muslim male teachers who claim that if anything the saree, in which the midriff is exposed, is not a decent garment for a teacher. I have heard glowing accounts of teachers’ dress in Gandhian institutions, which typically follow a strict code, and suggestions that a dress code involving sarees should include a way of draping them as Christian missionaries do, with no exposure of the midriff.This in a state which has seen horrific cases of sexual abuse against students training to be teachers (as in the infamous PTC college, Patan, where successive batches of students were sexually abused by the male faculty), not to mention the horrors perpetrated against women in the 2002 riots carried out under the state’s gaze. However tragic and farcical, it is most likely that the younger women holding contract jobs and women belonging to the Muslim faith are the ones who will face the brunt of the punitive measures if they fail to comply with the dress code.