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On dissent and a dress code


While Anna University's enforcement of a "dress code" has now fostered a whole new, and fiery debate on the right to legislate on students' wardrobe, another moratorium on the use of mobile phones on engineering college campuses seems to have been accepted by the students.

"All over the country, whenever institutions of higher education have tried to impose dress codes upon its girl students, they have always had to backtrack."


"MORALITY" SIEGE?: The student community is in turmoil over the ban on wearing "inappropriate attire".

THE Anna University is under a curious kind of "morality" siege. Perhaps for the first time in its 20 and odd-year history, the girl students are in a rebellious mode, protesting against what they see as the university's unilateral and "sexist" move in imposing a "dress code".

Widely seen by a large section of the women students as "moral policing" and a "regressive and paternalistic move", Vice-Chancellor D. Viswanathan's September 1 edict — no wearing jeans or T-shirts/sleeveless/tight-fitting/revealing outfits and only salwar kameezes for women — in 231 engineering colleges across the State has now fostered a whole new debate on the propriety (or lack of it) of female attire and whether an institution of higher education has the right to legislate on students' wardrobe. Interestingly, another moratorium on the use of mobile phones inside the campus seems to have come down lightly on the students, most of whom agree that selective restrictions have become essential, given the disturbance caused by the gadgets inside lecture halls.

Faced with a resentment he had not anticipated, the Vice-Chancellor then clarified that there would be no "military-like strictness" in enforcing the code. To pre-empt any charges of gender bias, the VC clarified that even men students would not be allowed to wear T-shirts or jeans, an announcement which was met with ridicule by the women who argued that it was only a tokenistic concession (right, in set of two pictures).

The roots

The roots of the problem lie in the answer to the question whether or not women's dressing can be trivialised to the extent it is considered to be a distraction. Is a woman wearing a sleeveless outfit, for example, a threat to peace in a campus? Also, should universities, which are supposed to be egalitarian by their very nature and incubators of ideas, concern themselves with issues that have no bearing on their academic inclination?

The Anna University's move draws from the experiences of hundreds of self-financing colleges all over the State and institutions such as the Sathyabama (Deemed) University where gender diversification as a means to campus discipline is more the rule than the exception. Not surprisingly, while such colleges have hailed the ban, the students, even the men, are not amused. "At 18, you are given the right to choose your Prime Minister. How can you not know which dress to wear?" asks G. Selva, State secretary of the Students Federation of India.

"We are only trying to ensure that students dress decently and modestly, in a way that befits our culture. A dress code will also pre-empt harassment of women students," Dr. Viswanathan counters.

The university's positioning in this issue is interesting. All over the country, whenever institutions of higher education have tried to impose dress codes upon its girl students, they have always had to backtrack. In June this year, citing increasing instances of rape against women, when the Delhi University clamped a "no skimpy outfits, only salwar kameezes" rule on its girl students, the office of the academic who was instrumental was ransacked by irate female students, who eventually wrenched an apology from the man.

In July, Mumbai University Vice-Chancellor Vijay Khole tried something similar, even famously ascribing the rape of a woman student at a Marine Drive police outpost to "scanty student attire". In 2003, women students of Lucknow's famous Awadh College forced the authorities to back-track on a similar move by boycotting classes. Similar furious protests also led to students locking up professors at both Lucknow's Mahila Vidhyalaya and Kanpur's Balika Vidhyalaya.

More reactions

In Tamil Nadu itself, where student protests were never as virulent as the ones up North, the issue has assumed the dimensions it has mostly because Anna University, which receives students from all over the country and aims at reaching out to the global market, has taken upon itself the mission of regulating campus attire. "Do you mean to say if we dress conservatively in sarees and salwar-kameezes, we will be safer? Is there any guarantee that a traditional attire will lead to fewer instances of crime against women? The Vice-Chancellor should stop thrusting his own moral values upon us and not make us a medium for his patriarchal leanings," a civil engineering student from Anna University says.

Even the IT gurus whom the university is trying to woo for its campus recruitment drive do not think "modern dresses" will detract from professionalism. "Dressing in a casual and comfortable manner is allowed in IT offices. The university's dress code and its proclaimed declaration to make its students globally competitive are mutually opposing moves," says R. Jayaprakash, president of the IT Professionals Forum.

Interestingly, a section of girl students agrees that low-waist jeans worn under short tops can be a "distraction", but that it does not warrant a blanket ban on jeans and T-shirts. The "Simran jeans", (as it was called after an actress whose signature attire it was) became standard student fare only in the last five years. "It is definitely not proper campus attire and is a particularly bad example of how celluloid culture spills over into campuses," says Sumathi Iyer, whose college going daughter refuses to step out of hipsters even during formal occasions.

Film historian Theodore Baskaran thinks blaming cinema for campus ills is only an excuse academics use for things they themselves cannot control. "There is no methodology whatsoever to assess the impact of cinema on society. All such attempts have remained impressionistic. Cinema often becomes a convenient punching bag."

Caught in a quasi-ideological web of its own making, the Anna University is now finding itself increasingly isolated on an issue which, had it been handled more sensitively, could well have earned it cheers instead of the increasingly-vociferous jeers.

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