Are days of ‘my dress my choice’ sliding behind us?

Sunday October 22 2017

Beth Nyawira

Nominated MCA Beth Nyawira walks out of the Nyeri County Assembly moments after she was kicked out of the chambers for dressing indecently on October 17, 2017. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By JACQUELINE KUBANIA
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An incident this week in which the Speaker of the Nyeri County Assembly ejected a member for wearing “inappropriate” clothes has once again stirred debate on what is deemed as the right dressing and grooming. And it seems the days of “my dress my choice” could be sliding behind us as a number of public workplaces start defining dress codes for employees.

It may not reach the Uganda levels of having a nationwide code for government staff, but recent happening in county governments and county assemblies point to a future where there will be increased focus on dressing.

At risk are women who like dressing up liberally , men who are averse to official clothing and even those who adorn dreadlocks.

Take West Pokot County as an example. Governor John Lonyangapuo caused a storm in a recent address to his employees when he declared that women were henceforth banned from wearing miniskirts, halter tops and female trousers as they were “not among preferred or acceptable attire”.

CASUAL WEAR

For the men, the only requirement, as per the governor’s directive, is a tie.

And in the Nyeri County Assembly recently, nominated Ward Rep Beth Nyawira was ejected for showing up in the assembly in casual wear.

“My dress length was below the knee and the only issue is that it was sleeveless. It was intentional because it was a hot day,” Ms Nyawira would later explain.

“This is not the first time the issue of the dress code is being brought up in the assembly. We feel like our male colleagues are out to humiliate women,” she added.

Earlier, the assembly Speaker Samuel Kariuki had given directions on dressing after a motion by Karatina Ward Rep Watson Mburungo.

“No person, even if otherwise qualified, shall be admitted to the speaker’s gallery unless he or she is, in the opinion of the Sergeant-at-Arms, properly dressed,” the Speaker had ruled.

Human resource practitioners, feminists and women in general are not taking the recent developments very kindly, however.

OUTDATED

To some, Prof Lonyangapuo’s directive were archaic and outdated, with others wondering why employees’ dressing would be so high up on the list of administrative priorities for the governor.

According to Wanjiru Ndirangu, a human resource practitioner in Nairobi, Prof Lonyangapuo was wrong to wander into what is usually human resource territory.

“The governor’s declaration was foolhardy. That is a human resource issue, and not the prerogative of the governor to use his office to enforce a dress code,” says Ms Ndirangu.

“For the governor’s directive to become enforceable, he would have told the Public Service Commission to change its HR manual to include a stipulated skirt length for public servants,” she says.

This is, however, not to say that employers do not penalise employees or potential employees for dressing in a certain way.

“At interviews, the panel actually awards a candidate points for how they are dressed. The issue usually is not miniskirts or decency, though, but general smartness and adherence to the company’s dress code, for example, where full suits and dark colours are preferred,” she says.

DISCIPLINE

Ms Ndirangu says that she has never had to discipline an employee for wearing something “too short”, and that most women follow the unwritten rules in an organisation by wearing what is deemed acceptable.

She adds that she has been a victim of harassment at work, when a colleague castigated her for wearing a skirt that was too short, and told her that she should only wear trousers as skirts made her body type too distracting.

Ms Belinda Achien’g’, a marketing professional in Nairobi, has had similar experiences to Ms Ndirangu, getting harassed at work for dressing in a certain way.

“I had a colleague who would  stare at my behind every time I would walk near him. Whenever he was feeling bold, he would offer me a ride home or ask to take me out for drinks. I always declined,” she says, adding that the harasser was the HR officer at her workplace.

“What do you do when the very person you should report inappropriateness to is the number one villain?” she asks.

INTIMIDATE CO-WORKERS

But are men ever really justified when they complain about a woman’s dressing at work, or is it just an excuse to harass and intimidate their co-workers?

“When people complain about miniskirts, it is usually out of malice because women do not dress for the office the same way they dress for a night out. We are able to discern what outfit fits what context, and do not need men policing us about what we wear,” says Ms Ndirangu.

And, according to Aisha Ali, a feminist, when men go as far as banning women from wearing miniskirts, as Prof Lonyangapuo did, it is a classic case of institutionalising misogyny, where men in power abuse their authority to subjugate women.

“The banning of miniskirts is not only unconstitutional, as everyone has a right to dress however they choose, but also an act of violence against women. He is telling the men that they have his approval to mete out violence against women,” she says.

Vihiga County deputy governor Dr Patrick Saisi has a different opinion of the ban. He believes Prof Lonyangapuo’s declaration was informed by the context of the conservative nature of West Pokot, where miniskirts are rare.

FEMINIST LEANING

“I believe the governor was trying to apply situational ethics but ended up making a dictatorial remark which now paints him as archaic and retrogressive. Change is coming even to West Pokot, but the pace of change there is slower,” says Dr Saisi.

He is feminist-leaning and acknowledges that banning certain clothes is a manifestation of the many ways in which a patriarchal society has encroached on the rights of women, squeezing them into an increasingly narrow definition .

“The women in my office know that they are free to wear what they want. Women need to keep pushing for their rights,” he says.

Men have also for long had their fights in the dressing area. The small matter of putting on a tie has been one of the controversial topics.

Such a matter arose in June in the British House of Commons, where Speaker John Bercow ruled that MPs no longer had to wear ties.

DOGGING MEN

“As long as a member arrives in the House in business-like attire the question of whether that member is wearing a tie is not absolutely front and centre stage,” said the Speaker, as quoted by The Telegraph.

Another issue that has been dogging men in terms of clothing is dreadlocks. Mr Bobby Mkangi, a member of the now defunct Committee of Experts that delivered the current Constitution, is among the most famous men who don dreadlocks.

In a September 2012 with the Nation, Mr Mkangi said the bias some people have against those who sport dreadlocks are atavistic.

“This is a position in the Jurassic stage. When you force someone to shave their hair, you get only 75 per cent of the person and that is a loss. These stereotypes hold us captive,” he said.

 - Additional reporting by Elvis Ondieki