Schools are a place of learning, not merely for students but for teachers as well. At the Bakhrahat Girls’ High School in suburban Bengal, eight defiant teachers are being taught a lesson of their lives for an apparent sin they have committed. They have questioned the school authorities’ right to enforce its diktat regarding school-wear for female teachers in the absence of any written regulation to that effect and, most important, in the face of express instructions from both the state government and the high court that such dress codes should not be imposed on teachers. More alarmingly, despite threats from the school, they have not shied away from donning the salwar kameez (at times under compelling circumstances), and showing their preference for it.
By doing so, they have not only destroyed the image of the sari-clad school teacher, but also set an example of the unabashed exercise of the freedom of choice. This could hardly be tolerated in a girls’ school where rebelliousness of this sort runs the danger of inspiring such behaviour patterns among the pupils as well. And that, evidently, carries a more succinct threat to the established social order. Since the school managing committee is hamstrung by legalities to take corrective steps, the responsibility has fallen on the larger society itself to set matters right. The eight teachers now face threats to their lives from swirling mobs of parents, who perhaps read in the teachers’ liking for salwar-kameez a far ominous threat to Bengali culture than their children’s overwhelming fondness for Himesh Reshammiya.
It is strange that a milieu which finds the winning of contests in Hindi-film music perfectly acceptable should still show such paranoia about the adoption of salwar-kameez, which allows the working woman far greater freedom in movement than nine yards of seamless cloth. The frightening behaviour of the school and the crowd in Bakhrahat is being justified on the basis of the demands of “location” and “time”. It has been argued that a dress code suitable for city schools and colleges is not so for suburban Bengal, where, presumably, the law of the jungle works. However, this logic of time or location has not discouraged either principals of city colleges or militants in distant Kashmir or Manipur from imposing similar dress codes for women.
The control over women’s attire is a way of controlling their bodies and, thereby, the exercise of their rights. Not unnaturally, all sermonizing and all muscle-flexing on this issue are cloaked in moral overtones so as to hide the grievous injustice being done in the name of preserving values and societal norms. What women wear to their workplace or in the confines of their home should be left to their own choice, convenience and discretion. Mobs on the street, heads of management committees, religious organizations or governments do not have a proprietorial right to decide on women’s preferences, be it for the sari or for the hijab.