LOUD WHISPERS: Bras and Panties

There is a message from the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) of the Federal Polytechnic, Ilaro, Ogun State. If you are a parent or guardian of a female student at the Polytechnic, please pay attention so that you can understand the message, ‘it is absolutely essential that you wear pants and a bra while on campus. This is not a suggestion, it is a requirement. If you do not comply, you will face the consequences and may face disciplinary action. Please respect your fellow students and the rules of the school by wearing appropriate clothing at all times’. This is what the press release from the Poly Ilaro SRC states. Please do not say you were not informed of this new development. The message is explicit enough – your daughters should wear bras and panties to campus. It is also implicit – there might be a means of verifying if your daughter or ward is complying with these rules, just in case it is not easily determined by just looking. If you still do not understand the logical conclusion of this new ‘rule’ – it is likely that your daughter will be asked, ‘are you wearing a bra? Are you wearing panties?’ and if the appointed vigilante is not satisfied with the response, he (I guarantee you it will be a ‘He’) will have to take measures to confirm.

If all this sounds ridiculous to you, that is what it is. Ridiculous. This latest message comes from an overzealous student body, but it follows a pattern of ludicrous pronouncements on what is unacceptable for young adults on university/polytechnic campuses to wear or do. There is nothing wrong in establishing dress codes that are binding on all and can ensure a certain level of decorum in public spaces. I don’t think there is any parent who would want their child mistaken for a gangster or commercial sex worker. I am in support of persons of all ages and genders looking tidy and presentable. There should however be no excuse for deliberately violating the rights of young people, especially young women and exposing them to ridicule and harm. Several institutions such as Ibadan Polytechnic, Yaba Polytechnic and Federal Polytechnic Auchi for example, have embedded within their dress/moral codes strange provisions such as ‘no hugging on campus’, ‘no dark eyeglasses’, ‘no cross bags’, ‘no dreadlocks’, ‘no crazy-coloured braids for ladies’, ‘no bringing babies to the hostel/classroom’ to mention just a few items on a long list of things that are not allowed. This is no longer about how young people present themselves, this is about policing and dehumanizing them. Since the University/Polytechnic authorities have paved the way, this has emboldened those who have no business harassing their colleagues to appoint themselves as enforcers, hence the latest statement from the Poly Ilaro SRC.

It is claimed that all these measures and ‘dress codes’ are being put in place to prevent sexual harassment and save young people from themselves. The less ‘provocatively’ you dress, the less likely you are to draw the attention of randy lecturers. The more flesh you reveal as a young student, the redder your lipstick or the more pronounced your waistline, the more responsible you are for the lust-fuelled clutches of your Lecturer or the gang-rapes of cult members. The weak link between the way female students dress and the pandemic of sexual harassment in our higher institutions has been debunked over and over but it keeps falling on deaf ears. I was at a seminar on sexual violence in tertiary institutions in Abuja two years ago, and a male lecturer on one of the panels started this indecent dressing argument. One of the female speakers on the panel, who was dressed in a Hijab jumped up and almost whacked him, ‘This is how I was dressed the day my lecturer wanted to force himself on me’ she shouted. Most of us in the audience sent the man mental whacks too. The same people who keep singing this boring song are the ones who grope fully-clothed young women in their offices.

I believe that everyone, teachers and students alike should dress and behave appropriately in public. I however wonder why these authorities are so focused on gaslighting previous, current and future victims of sexual harassment that they can’t devote the same level of energy to bringing sexual predators to book and creating a safe learning environment for our daughters.

Last week, Professor Cyril Ndifon, Dean Faculty of Law at University of Calabar was in the news after a barrage of accusations against him for sexual harassment, assault and related misconduct over many years. The accusations against the Professor have been seeping through over a period of time, and as is the case with many powerful men like him in the academia, the victims have continued to increase while the alleged perpetrator is seemingly untouchable. The Professor was accused of sexual assault and harassment by multiple victims a few years ago, and in spite of the many vivid accounts of his misconduct, he got away and returned to his teaching duties. If the reports from scores of his former and current students are to be believed, many lives have been ruined. Now, Professor Ndifon has been suspended by the University Management for ‘alleged violation of the provisions of the extant laws and policies of the institution’. This time, let us hope that there is enough to remove him from direct contact with more vulnerable young women on a permanent basis.

In July 2002, the 9th National Assembly passed the Sexual Harassment Prohibition Bill, aimed at addressing the impunity of sexual harassment of female students in tertiary institutions. Sadly, the bill has not been assented to. While it is understood that laws and policies do not eradicate the problem, they go a long way in establishing a framework for justice and accountability. Every tertiary institution in the country has a serial sexual predator. The vast majority of their victims will remain unnamed and silent, left to battle their nightmares and pain alone. This needs to change. The strategies for prevention should not be targeted at the victims, more should be done to minimise the impunity and sense of entitlement of the adult predators. A lot of what is happening now with the introduction of draconian and silly dress/moral codes is going to do more harm than good. Perhaps we should see what happens when the moral police push their hands up the skirts of a Senator’s daughter to check if she is wearing panties.

 In 2020, my good friend and brother Segun Adeniyi wrote a well-researched and thought-provoking book, ‘Naked Abuse’ about sexual harassment in tertiary institutions across Africa. He asked me to write the Foreword to the book, this is an excerpt, ‘If young girls are unable to acquire an education in a safe environment and in peace, and go into the world to be the best they can, we will never achieve the development we seek. If our daughters have to spend their time in university dodging the erections and desperate clutches of teachers who are supposed to be their role models, then it should be no surprise if we end up with generations of physically and emotionally scarred women who are unproductive and dependent. Where there are laws and policies in place to prevent and deal with sexual harassment, they should be implemented to the full. Every tertiary institution needs a policy on sexual harassment and a zero-tolerance culture. The leadership of tertiary institutions need to demonstrate that they are serious about the issue and will not condone a culture of abuse, silence and impunity.

I hereby call on President Bola Ahmed Tinubu to please assent to the 2020 Sexual Harassment Bill. The Ministry of Education should ensure that all institutions of higher learning comply with best practices in preventing sexual harassment and exploitation. All the Governing Council members of Federal/State Universities and Polytechnics should devote their energies to zero tolerance for all forms of abuse and violence in their institutions and put in place whistle blower schemes to protect victims.

 All those drawing up rules that could further endanger young women should ask themselves the question, ‘do I want a security officer to put his hands under my daughter’s blouse to check if she is wearing a bra?’. As the young people will say, ‘I come in peace’.

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

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