Chaste student dress codes are coercive artifacts of ancient religions

Chaste student dress codes are coercive artifacts of ancient religions February 20, 2021

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Muslim woman wearing an abaya and head scarf, 2015. (Georgie Pauwels, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

I remember once in my moderately chaste high school in the late 1960s when our ironically titled “vice” principal, a very nice man named Jim Lyons, called me and a friend of mine into his office to tell us we needed to cut our hair. Above the collar was the rule we had allegedly violated.

Earlier in the day the vice had two female students kneeling on his office floor so he could measure whether their skirts were no more than two inches above the knee. They weren’t, I was told, so they were sent home to change into something less titillating.

Looking back, and I’m sure the crew-cutted, suited-and-tied Mr. Lyons didn’t view it that way, his directive to us was fundamentally a religious imperative, based on centuries of Christian puritanism that ended up contaminating American society and so many others in Western history.

You might say hair or thighs are shallow topics for censure. And that it should be now or have been then, but it was the ’60s, you understand, when long male hair was not only a political statement of youth against “the Establishment” and viewed as radical, but it was also a tribal sexual talisman, a potent signal, to the so-called “fairer” sex.

“I feel like letting my freak flag fly,” songwriter David Crosby wrote in his 1968 lyrics to “Almost Cut My Hair,” a popular youth anthem of the Aquarian rock ’n’ roll supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

The “freak flag” Crosby invoked was his radically long hair. The lyrics state that he wanted to keep his long, flowing locks to make a personal statement of independence and protest amid widespread anti-war sentiment in the U.S. at the time.

“I feel like I owe it to someone,” the song asserts.

But also, as Crosby and other young American men knew in that time, girls liked it too.

The 1968 Broadway rock musical “Hair” glorified the hippie counterculture and sexual revolution late in that decade, and its most prominent anthem, tellingly, was titled “Hair,” as well. At that moment in time, men’s hair had become sexualized and politicized, and, importantly, authorities began to recognize those linkages. Here’s a snippet below, and if you’ve heard it before, the melody probably quickly pops into your head:

There ain’t no words
For the beauty, the splendor, the wonder
Of my…
Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it
Long as God can grow it
My hair

But I digress. A bit. Although this post is, in fact, about school dress codes in the 21st century, the particular code I will reference is in Pakistan, not the United States, but it still fundamentally relates to America, even its ’60s iteration, in how religion still permeates, distorts and controls societies.

I read several news articles the other day reporting on a new school dress-code order by the conservative Islamist government of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province prohibiting the region’s female students from “wearing jeans, tights and makeup” and banning male students from wearing “earrings, torn jeans, or shorts,” among other more onerous proscriptions.

According to an article in the Atheist Republic website:

“Female students must wear a black abaya with a white or black scarf. An abaya is customarily black; the dress is fashioned like a relaxed and slightly baggy robe or caftan and it covers everything but the face, hands, and feet. The male students are only allowed to wear a white or black shalwar kameez [a long, loose-fitting shirt],” according to a directive by Prof. Dr. Bashir Ahmed, the vice-chancellor who heads the Academic Council at Bacha Khan University.

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French Muslim woman wearing an abaya and face-covering “niqab” (head and face coverings). (Hans Braxmeier, Creative Commons, Public Domain)

The new government edict is a reprisal of an issue broached in 2019, when authorities ordered all female students to wear a burqa — a full body- and face-covering garment common in more-conservative Afghanistan than Pakistan. Notably, the Khyber Pass area in question is adjacent to Afghanistan, home of the still-medieval Taliban.

The good news is, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government rescinded that 2019 order after a huge public backlash. Pakistanis embrace a more moderate form of Islam than other nearby Islamic countries and allow relatively greater personal freedoms for men and women, although there is more cultural tension in border areas.

Whether the new 2021 dress code is also rescinded remains to be seen, although the government is signaling it may not to be as heavy handed this time in terms of enforcement.

Although the government insists that the purpose of the new dress code is to protect poorer, traditionally clad students from disadvantage and shaming vis-a-vis their better-heeled classmates, it says cultural and religious factors were also taken into account.

Indeed, religious factors are crucial, as Islam, like conservative Christianity, puts a very high premium on women’s chastity — and even decries just appearances to the contrary, like clothing viewed as immodest to conservative Pakistanis and, thus, sexually provocative.

Keep in mind that the doctrines and traditions of Islam and Christianity partly share biblical and Judaic roots — and therefore the same proscriptions against sexual signaling and promiscuity that one finds in the Bible is also found in the Talmud and the Quran. And Islam, founded in the 7th century, is the newest of the world’s three major monotheistic religions, including Christianity and Judaism, so its original fervency has had less time to erode.

As we saw in my 1960s high school and now at schools in Pakistan, this religious squeamishness about sex and things related finds its way into many aspects of life in societies that embrace orthodox Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

The problem in America is that the populace now is no longer as monolithically Christian much less religious in general, as it was in its infancy. But the coercive impulse toward student dress, especially for females, remains in some schools, especially fundamentalist religious schools. And, mark my words, it would be more widespread in the U.S. tomorrow if evangelicals somehow suddenly gained control of government.

Starting with the ancient and ultimately sainted Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), if not before, in the Catholic Church’s early days, Christianity’s dogmatic cult of female chastity was born. And it was a stern, misogynist cult, viewing girls and women as the darkest source of evil in the world because of their assumed undeniable instinct to tempt even pious men into sins of the flesh. Indeed, whose fault was it that Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden? Not blameless Adam, certainly.

Welcome to draconian dress codes for female students in Pakistan in the 21st century.

When nations say “cultural norms” compel them to control their women’s actions and bodies, you can simply just replace that term with “religious doctrines” to get a more accurate representation of what is actually going on.

This is how religion controls societies while authorities dismissively wave away any assertions that fantastical religion has anything to do with it.

Take the Saudi tradition of requiring, to this day, that all women hide their bodies within head-to-toe abayas and head coverings (and frequently veils) when in public.

Authorities insist it is an important “cultural” norm that “protects” Saudi women from unwanted attention and assault at the hands of men.

It is widely viewed as a cultural norm now by that society, but note that it was born as a religious one many long-forgotten years ago.

As we’ve also seen in America.


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