What's appropriate attire for K-12 students? From thongs to veils, everyone has an opinion

BlogHer Original Post

Uniforms and thong underwear and niqab, oh my!

The news sites and blogosphere lately have been abuzz with the topic of what constitutes appropriate attire for students.

In West Virginia, as elsewhere in the U.S., school officials are sick and tired of seeing students in "vulgar" clothing such as thong underwear, cleavage-featuring shirts, and baggy pants. This has been a problem with college students in my neck of the woods, although lately I've been seeing fewer thongs sticking out of young women's jeans and more butt crack. (I've always said you don't know your students until you've stared down their butt cleavage over your lunch in the student union.)

Such exposed skin and underwear has led many school districts to consider implementing polices requiring school uniforms. I barely missed this reform myself in Long Beach, California, where, when I was a few years into high school, the district mandated uniforms for K-8 students in order to cut down on gang-related violence. Since then, a few high schools in the district have also adopted uniforms, although students always find ways to subvert uniform codes and their more byzantine cousins, the lengthy public school dress codes that list forbidden items. When I was in high school, girls in gangs, or whose boyfriends were in gangs, would sometimes come to school wearing a forbidden Raider's football team jacket over a similarly verboten halter top. Classy, n'est-ce pas? And yet--creative and subversive in a way that I kind of admire because during my teen years I never had that kind of chutzpah.

I've always been conflicted about dress codes and especially about mandated uniforms for students. I think I might have appreciated a uniform policy in grades 4-6, when I enrolled in classes at a school in a neighboring attendance district, one whose students' families were better off than mine. Getting picked on for not having the latest clothes was demoralizing. (I was fortunate that my parents could buy me at least last season's fashions; some parents can't even afford uniforms for their students.) At the same time, I try to be a champion of personal, independent expression, especially when clothes are used in an attempt to subvert administrative decree. (Sometimes students get a bit, um, flagrant in rebelling: in South Wales earlier this month, students burned their blazers.)

As a third-wave feminist who values the diverse perspectives of women around the world, but also as someone who lacks any substantive religious background, I have conflicted feelings over the UK government's recent decision not to ban veils in schools, a possibility they had been considering because of the growing popularity among some British Muslim women of niqab, a veil that covers the face. A women's rights group in Quebec is also trying to ban hejab as well as yarmulkes, and the Turkey, Tunisia, and France have already banned the veil in public schools and/or elsewhere. The movement to ban veils is spreading. For example, a recent survey of Danes showed 46 percent favor a ban on headscarves in schools, and the Dutch also have mixed feelings about burqas. There has also been at least one case in Spain. Italy, too is struggling with issues surrounding the assimilation of Muslim women.

Zeynab of the fabulous blog Muslimah Media Watch gives a nice summary of the issue, explains one part of these bans that is particularly problematic, and wonders where mainstream U.S. feminist organizations would stand on the issue:

Filing “hejab bans” under religious discrimination isn’t fully incorrect, but neither is it fully correct. Making the hejab bans a religious issue implies that hejab is mandatory and part of Islamic belief. While many Muslim women see it as a mandatory obligation, many Muslim women do not: Islamic scholars still debate verses in the Holy Qur’an and ahadith that pertain to the idea of a woman covering herself. There are many devout Muslim women who don’t observe hejab for whatever reason, and decrying hejab bans on the pretext of religious freedom leaves these women (who are potential allies) out.

The issue of banning hejabs (or any other religious garb or symbols worn on the body) is really an issue of personal freedom, but banning the hejab specifically targets women. The reality of a hejab ban is that a government would (or does, in Turkey’s & France’s cases) not allow women to wear an item of clothing if she wants to.

Using hejab bans as a religious issue also complicates opposition. For example, the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) opposes discrimination based on hejabs, and would likely speak out on the issue if the American government ever decided to follow France’s and Turkey’s leads by banning hejab in public institutions. But would women’s groups, such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), speak out against this? If it’s touted as a “secularist/religion” issue, probably not. But if we see these bans for what they really are (taking a woman’s personal freedom of expression away), maybe women’s groups would be inclined to speak up.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali points out that discussions of any ban on hejab should go beyond the appropriateness about religious dress in schools. Governments should discuss, she writes, what she sees as the accompanying cultural sexualization of children and the disenfranchisement of girls and young women:

I think religion is taking up far too much time, attention and space in our society. Blair needs to look at the segregation of boys and girls and ask himself why young girls in primary schools are veiled. Are we saying that five and six-year-olds are sexual symbols, “uncovered meat”? As a society we must understand that saving young girls from all kinds of repression is important. Many are removed from school when they reach puberty, often when they start to behave like British teenagers. That is the precise moment when teachers, mentors and feminists need to identify those girls at risk, those who want to be emancipated and who face the risk of forced marriages and violence.

For even more analysis, see Pari Esfandiari's post on the veil from this time last year, as well as a paper, "The Veil and the British Male Elite," by Ali Khan that analyzes one particular case:

Azmi will have a weak legal claim if the school can show a factual linkage between veil and teaching inefficacy. But that is not the point the British male elite, though known for their love of legal formalisms, is making. Their argument goes beyond the grooming standards at workplace. They wish to assimilate immigrant women into a prototypical woman who caters for male sensibilities and makes men feel comfortable.

Uriya Shavit's long post "Should Muslims Integrate into the West?" provides further context for the debates. Among other issues, she considers

How can states achieve a balance between republicanism and minority rights? Can majorities in liberal, Western nation-states, force a dress code upon minorities? While Muslim societies have debated various garments and coverings for women through the twentieth century,[2] the issues are broader. Often, Muslim commentators in the West couch their arguments in the Western discourse of the balance between individual rights and public interest.[3] However, the personal freedom versus integration debate is only one context of the polemic; another is the dichotomy between two types of nationality and between two sources of legitimacy. Here, Muslim scholarship on migration sheds more light than Western political theory.

Definitely check it out.

What are your thoughts and experiences? I'm still wrestling with where I stand (if anywhere!) on this issue.

Leslie Madsen-Brooks helps university faculty improve their teaching. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toy Box.

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