In A Nation’s Argument, this term’s Junior/Senior English/History course, we have been studying the constitution of the United States along with the changing constitutions of countries in the Middle East. After looking at the arguments used in creating or revising legislation, our project as action was to create our own amendment to the GCE Code of Conduct. Below is my argument for a revision to the dress code.
In the GCE Dress Code, among rules about hats and sunglasses and skirt lengths and shoes, is a line that states “Undergarments, including bra straps and sports bras, should not be visible.” So, if a thin strip of fabric can be seen crossing a girl’s shoulder, she has violated the Code of Conduct and will have to change clothes or do two hours of service.
It is a tiny thing, really– but then why include it in the dress code? GCE students are expected to look presentable, and society has long mandated that what is acceptable for women fits a narrow definition. The quickest way for a woman to lose her credibility is to dress in a “provocative” way. This is why bra straps are banned at GCE. The sight of it reminds the viewer that there are at least two layers of clothing preventing a normal section of the human body from being seen. So provocative.
Apart from being a bit ridiculous, this sets up two harmful expectations. The first is that to prevent anyone from fixating inappropriately on a girl’s body, she must change, rather than teaching those overwhelmed by undergarments not to think that way. The second expectation created by this rule is that even trivial choices in dress reflect poorly on a girl’s worth.
Throughout most of history, women have been expected to conform to a very narrow ideal, which principally involved being a passive, submissive virgin. Progress has been made, yes– some might say, after the Nineteenth Amendment granted suffrage to women, equality has been achieved, but that is false. American women have equal voting privileges as men, but democracy should stretch beyond the vote. At its core is an avoidance of imbalanced power dynamics. And power is not divided as it should be if society can–and does–dictate elaborate decency standards for women.
It is true, though, that the United States offers more freedom to women than many other parts of the world. Currently, women in the Middle East are joining in the Arab Spring protests to fight for both the rights of their people and their personal rights as women. Like in other parts of the world, many tactics are used in the Middle East to shame women into submission. In a New Yorker article by Wendell Steavenson, “Two Revolutions,” Egyptian activist Samira Ibrahim spoke of legislation that may be passed to enforce wearing of the hijab, principally as an attempt to get women under control. As in all cases, this is not about a disdain for modesty. It is about choice. Ibrahim already wears a veil for personal and religious reasons, but says “If there is a law to impose the hijab on women, I would take off my veil.” Ibrahim was one of seven female protesters to be arrested in Tahrir Square, tortured, and subjected to painful “virginity tests” administered by the army. The army used the ‘data’ collected about the women’s virginity to discredit them, saying “they were not decent girls.” They wanted to shame the women into silence, and it worked: Ibrahim was the only one to press charges.
A visible bra strap is a tiny, trivial thing, yes. Even literally, the change is tiny: it is only a difference of four words to instead say “Undergarments, excluding any straps, should not be visible.” Yet it is a speck on the breadcrumb path that leads to inequality for women. Currently, policing the appearance and choices of girls, even down to details like this, is done without second thought. But it is time to pick up the crumbs so that women can make their own path.
Steavenson, Wendell. “Letter From Cairo: Two Revolutions.” New Yorker (2012): 32-38.