LOUD WHISPERS: Dress Codes Versus Morality Police
Over the past couple of weeks, there has been a debate in Nigeria about Dress Codes and the implications for civil liberties. There was an order from the leadership of Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) that a dress code would be enforced on all employees. They listed a number of dress items which would henceforth be considered inappropriate. These ‘banned’ items include spaghetti tops, tight jeans, navel exposing tops, rough hairstyles, scuffed shoes and so on. Around the time this happened, a woman who was visiting the Immigration Service was turned back for wearing a ‘high low hem’ dress which covered her upper body, but revealed her knees. Her outfit was smart casual enough for an office visit, but she was turned away. Nigerians, especially women, were up in arms about these developments and rightfully so.
In my own opinion, and from my experience as an employer, dress codes are important. Through a dress code, you express a corporate culture of value, respect and professionalism. If your employees can show up in anything they like, as a boss you should not be upset if your place of work is mistaken for the local bar. Serious customers who have come in to see their lawyer, accountant or banker will simply take their business elsewhere, rather than take the risk of leaving their money in the hands of a manager dressed like a local gangster. It is just plain common sense to dress appropriately for the work place. Dress codes, according to global best practice, are not meant to discriminate against anyone, but to encourage a projection of the workplace in the best possible light.
Having said all this, when it comes to the use of dress codes in most African countries, we have to be vigilant. The agendas might not necessarily be all about promoting the right corporate culture, it is usually to do with policing women and girls. There are many who feel that women should not wear certain things, regardless of whether they are going to work, church, a party or the beach. For example, many believe women should not wear trousers of any kind neither should they wear miniskirts or short dresses. Many Pastors in Nigeria have preached against women wearing trousers, jewelry and makeup. There are also concerns that an agenda is afoot to ‘Islamise’ Nigeria, hence the need to find ways to cover up as many women as possible. The desire to police and control women is something all deeply conservative forces share regardless of their religion or ethnicity.
In 2008, Senator Eme Ekaette sponsored the infamous ‘Indecent Dressing’ Bill, which thankfully, died a natural death. The Bill sparked a lengthy debate about the role of the State in legislating how citizens should dress. It was considered a clear violation of human rights. It is true that a lot of young people dress in ways which give cause for alarm. It should however be noted that if they are over 18, they are adults, with the right to make choices, be they good ones or poor. For the adults who insist on wearing inappropriate clothing, again, it is a matter of choice. I do not see how you can legislate against someone bent on making a fool of themselves. If Senator Ekaette’s Bill had been passed, no woman would have been safe in Nigeria. The appropriateness of our outfits would have been decided by a horde of morality police, enthusiastically extorting money from thousands of frustrated and humiliated women going about their business.
Dress codes for the work place must be unambiguous and non-discriminatory. If the rules are perceived as clamping down on only women then it is discrimination. The NPA rules about ‘tight jeans’ are very suspicious. If you want to add jeans to the list of excluded items that is okay, many workplaces do not allow jeans except for those who have a ‘Dress down Friday’ policy. To say you are excluding ‘tight jeans’ sounds like a rule that will place women at the mercy of the morality police, because ‘tight’ is rather subjective. In 2015 I was with family and friends in Dubai, and we made a day trip to Abu Dhabi. One of our stops was the famous Sheikh Zayed Mosque. There were twelve of us in the group, and when we got out of the bus, we were screened by a security guard at the entrance. He obviously had the responsibility to weed out those who were not dressed appropriately to enter the mosque. He pointed at me and my cousin’s wife and shook his head. My cousin’s wife had a short sleeved T Shirt on and a long skirt. Let us give it to him that her mostly bare arms caused offence. What was I wearing? I dress primarily for comfort so I never wear anything tight. I had on a three-quarter-sleeved shirt dress with a pair of leggings. The dress was well below my knees, and I also had a shawl to cover my head with. Other members of the group wanted to know why he would not let me through. He only spoke Arabic, but he kept gesticulating with his hands, drawing what looked like a figure eight. Then we understood what he was trying to say. Beneath my long shirt dress and leggings, he could still see my curves, especially my backside! I found it so hilarious. I stayed behind with my cousin’s wife while the rest went in to the mosque. I had visited the mosque before in 2009, and back then I had on a blouse and jeans, and my backside was pretty much the same. I was let in. Now on this day, this particular guard decided that my visible backside would cause offence. That is the danger of placing people’s freedoms of movement and expression in the hands of morality police.
My advice for all government Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) who want to adopt or implement a dress code is that such dress codes should be in line with best practice around the world. The dress codes should in no way discriminate against women. For example adding trousers or ‘tight jeans’ to the list of unacceptable clothing is wrong and discriminatory. Women should be able to wear trousers if they want to.
For the benefit of those who are wondering what is appropriate to wear to work and what is not, I would have said everyone should know and it is a matter of common sense, but sometimes it is not. As I mentioned above, I have had cause to insist on a dress code in organisations I have been responsible for. I once had a colleague who was always so careless about her appearance, almost every time I went out with her I had cause for concern. One day, we went for a meeting with a donor agency in the US. When I got back to the hotel, I got a call from the person who had facilitated the meeting, she was quite angry. ‘Why can’t your colleague iron her dress?’ she wanted to know. I was so embarrassed. I had of course noticed the rumpled silk dress, it looked like she had slept in it. I however held my peace because I did not want her to think I was always picking on her. And now a third party had weighed in. As soon as we got back, I drafted a dress code using established guidelines in our sector.
Dressing for work is an opportunity to present yourself as a competent, trustworthy professional. Less is more. Miniskirts, spaghetti tops, tank tops, cleavage exposing camisoles and so on should be set aside for Saturday or for clubbing. For the guys, your hair, shoes, tie and a nice aftershave (not too much) say a lot about you. For both men and women, a good appearance does not need to be expensive, you can do things within your means.
We do not need morality police trailing us around, telling us what we can or cannot wear. In a democracy, citizens are entitled to many freedoms, including the freedom to express themselves. It is the role of parents, guardians, teachers and mentors to provide guidance to young people when necessary. The next time you see your niece dressed like she is going to the beach when in fact she is going to church, you might want to have a word with her. I did that once to a niece of mine. I gently pushed her towards a full-length mirror and asked her, ‘What do you want to be in future?’ ‘A Lawyer’ she told me. ‘Great. Do you look like one now?’. ‘No’, she said. She got the message. She is a young adult who can be counselled or advised. She does not need to be policed.
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com