Whether it is in a domestic or religious or professional setting, dress codes for women are usually stricter than those for their male counterparts. In formal contexts dress codes are put in place to maintain professionalism and are equally enforced on women and men. This article is not referring to those instances. This article refers to dress codes that may exist for both men and women, but are only enforced on women.
Objects of the Male Gaze
Dress codes exist on the principle that the female body must be viewed through the eyes of men; as a sex object. Something that causes men to sin. Something that puts impure thoughts in men. This extends even to adolescent girls. Those who hold this world view assume that all men are lecherous and have lewd thoughts whenever they see someone ‘immodestly’ dressed. That women are constantly objects of the male gaze.
Enforcers of dress codes believe that if women do not hide their body, men will view them as sex objects, and act on this notion by raping them.
The hypocrisy of this is that where dress codes are enforced only on women, the notion that women are sex objects is also reinforced. The very thing that these dress codes are trying to prevent is perpetuated by the existence of dress codes for only women and girls.
In these settings, there are no restrictions for men. Attraction to teenagers is not only common but also expected and accommodated. Often Men act on this sexualisation of teenagers by initiating sexual relations with minors. If these relations occur, the blame is placed on the teenager and not the adult.
Abdication of male responsibility
Dress codes exist because female bodies are said to induce sexual urges in males. It is believed if women are allowed to dress how they like rape will increase because men will be overrun by their sexual desire.
This line of thought reduces males to beings governed by their sexual impulses; an unfair notion that abdicates men from responsibility for their sexual violence.
Men can control their behaviour innately
It is harmful to teach men and boys that the responsibility for their actions lies in the clothing choices of a woman. It removes personal responsibility for one’s actions and sets them up to be rapists. Or at the very least to sympathise with rapists.
Dress code apologists believe that lax or non-existent dress codes for women increase the occurrence of rape. This line of thought reveals that we as a society believe the female body is inherently deserving of this violence. And there only way to avoid it is by covering it up.
But let’s for a minute pretend we believed that the matured female body can make a man rape or think about rape. Then what of the many rapists who rape children and infants? The undeveloped female body is similar to the male body. What about this body enticed the rapists?
The common occurrence of defilement, as well the existence of rape in societies where women and girls dress very conservatively, disprove this notion that a woman’s dressing causes rape.
A ‘culture of modesty’
As the image below implies, Malawian culture is a culture of modesty. This is not factual. Before colonisation, as Kamuzu Banda often said, Malawians walked around naked, save for having a garment to cover their mid-section. For good reason too; Malawi is in the tropics meaning it is often hot. Having as little clothing on as possible improved comfort and prevented heat stroke.
Malawi adopted Eurocentric standards of modesty with the coming of colonisation and Christianity. It is important to note that Britain is the opposite of Malawi in terms of weather. It is often cold in Britain and wearing long things there makes sense for avoiding frost bite.
It is also important to note that Britain has abandoned these conservative views of dressing and taken on a more liberal attitude to dressing.
Dress codes reinforce the idea that female bodies are inherently deserving of violence. They create a culture where violence against women is never completely the perpetrators’ fault but rather the victim’s fault for what she wore or did or where she was. This is despite how common rape is, especially how common rape of children is. We see how this notion is epitomised in the violent methods of which dress codes are enforced.
In Saudi Arabia , school girls were not allowed to flee a burning hostel because they did not have their head wrappers on. This resulted in the death of 15 students. Religious police blocked these girls in their hostel just for not adhering to a dress code during a fire.
In Karonga , women and girls dressed in trousers and mini skirts were undressed by various men.
Dress codes teach male ownership of female bodies. They also teach that violence against women is justifiable and thus should be condoned and maybe even encouraged.
At a secondary school in Zomba where dress codes are enforced mostly on female students, male students often pinch the bums of female students when they receive food at lunch time and dinner time. They scream rude and inappropriate things to fellow learners who they deem to be dressed inappropriately.
Dress codes claim to want to create morality in their girls. But how do they help boys?
How do they help boys deal with their lustful thoughts and impulses? They encourage it. They create a bubble in which boys behave well only if girls adhere to strict rules. Making it normal to punish a girl who is disobedient by raping them or groping them or verbally harassing them.
Are we really creating innate morality in women and girls by getting them to obey dress codes out of fear of violence? Or are we creating compliance by policing women’s choices?
In boys we are creating predators who only behave in certain circumstances, but can be violent if those circumstances are not there.
In both instances there is no morality created instead fear of violence in women and impunity in boys and men.
If our aim is truly to reduce rape, then we should talk to our men and boys about consent. We should punish perpetrators of violence. We should teach boys that their good behaviour is never dependent on how a woman dresses.