By ALICIA WALLACE
It is not uncommon to experience and hear about difficulty accessing government services. Phones ring and we are put on hold for long periods of time, the one person who has the information we need is not there, the application form we printed from the website is outdated, they are only able to accept cash at the moment. We all know we need to take a day off from work to do anything involving a government agency, from licencing a vehicle to getting a vaccination. Now, it seems, we have to deal with dress codes that are not only discriminatory, but are enforced differently depending on who is at the door or front desk.
This is not an entirely new issue. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Education posted a dress code for visitors to schools, including parents who need to pick up their children or see teachers, to follow. It had a long list of clothing items, from tanks tops to “tightly fitted clothing”, considered unacceptable. This came only months after voter suppression at the Parliamentary Registration Department which refused to register women to vote in the general election due to exposed arms or cleavage. Recent reports have come from women who were turned away from the Department of Immigration because they were wearing shorts, sleeveless dresses, or sleeveless shirts.
Minister of Immigration Brent Symonette was quite arrogant in his response to the concerns raised about the dress code at his department. He suggested any form of dress he does not consider “respectable” is “sloppy”. He was nonchalant about the concern that the dress code is slut-shaming (which means women are criticised for going against societal expectations, particularly when behaviours are linked to sexuality and sexual expression). He referenced the power of the Department of Immigration which seemed to suggest that if a person needs a permit only the department can issue, they have no choice but to fall in line, whether they like it or not.
This is typical of people in positions in power. They are not interested in hearing about how we, especially members of marginalised communities, are impacted by their policies. They are quick to remind us they believe they hold the power in the relationship and are not hesitant to wield it. His response indicates his complete disinterest in having a conversation or considering the validity of the issue raised, much less making necessary adjustments.
Yes, I am in favour of the dress code
No, I am not in favour of the dress code
285 total votes.
These dress codes, a form of gender-based discrimination, come up every few months. Women are disproportionately affected by policies that increasingly call for specific body parts, frequently exposed on men, to be covered. They do not ask men to cover their arms and legs, or to spare us the sight of their underwear. The focus is on women and limiting our liberty.
Living in a subtropical climate, dress codes that require coverage of arms and legs are not only ludicrous, but oppressive and one of many persisting effects of colonialism. We have been convinced that professionalism is conservatism. They taught us that three-piece suits, covered knees, pantyhose and straight hair are ways to communicate qualifications. Modesty came to be associated with status and this is how we arrived at this place. Clothing worn by those outside of the office has become synonymous with a particular status. People — particularly women — of that status are seen as less deserving of the public goods and services that should be accessible to all.
Independence did not free us of these interpretations of dress and we have, in many ways, been left behind. Having visited the United Kingdom numerous times and attended events of varying formality, I know that such stringent demands are no longer made the way they still are in The Bahamas. In fact, British summer is a relief and people look forward to wearing sleeveless dresses and shorts, even if there is still a bit of a chill in the air.
We like to talk about decency. There is nothing indecent about dressing for the weather. What is indecent is the constant sexualisation of women’s bodies and bids to make us invisible. We are supposed to be silent and go unnoticed. If any attention comes to us, it is assumed we did something to attract it. Our appearance and demeanour is supposed to ensure no one around us is distracted or tempted and that they do not take any action that would cause us harm. It has been made our responsibility to protect ourselves from men and to protect men from themselves and, more specifically, the consequences of their actions.
This is evidence of the insidious nature of misogyny and rape culture. Not only are women blamed for men’s violence against us, but we are saddled with rules and restrictions that are meant to protect men from acting on desires for power. It means if women are to be in the workplace, we need to be made unrecognisable as women. No one should be able to tell we have breasts. It means if women occupy public space, we need to secure ourselves by covering our bodies as much as possible, regardless of the discomfort it causes. It means our resistance, however passive or unintentional, must be met with public embarrassment when we are refused access to services and more regulation comes to warn and control others.
Women and exposed shoulders, legs or cleavage are not the problem. We need to turn our attention to the archaic policies which are both poorly communicated — as evidenced by the ridiculous sign (which does not mention sleeveless dresses) at the Department of Immigration — and in desperate need of aggressive updates. We need to address the consistently misplaced responsibility that requires women to make ourselves invisible.
Government services should be accessible to everyone, regardless of gender or socioeconomic status. We should be concerned about the experiences of people going to the Ministry of Social Services. Is there a dress code for people who need social assistance? Which government offices have these policies, and which do not? Where is the line drawn?
For many, this may seem like a minor issue, but be reminded of December 2016. Voter registration was at an all-time low with less than six months to a general election and women were turned away. The Parliamentary Commissioner doubled down on his position and had to be directed, more than once, to stop voter suppression. People in positions of power believe they can bully us into submission by denying us services to which we are already entitled. We need not wait until it is too late to stand, or wear a skirt suit to do it.