Saturday 3 September 2016

Nigeria: Our fascination with regulating how women dress

Now seriously
Some two days ago, I retweeted a posting with my own commentary which was challenged by a few of my followers and it led to a discussion on the regulation of feminine apparel, the rut in the civil service and other issues about outward moralising with no character moulding consequence necessary to ensure a more harmonious society.

The news story that appeared on the YNaija website had the headline, “NPA bans female workers from wearing miniskirts, jeans trousers.” To the few that challenged my premise, they first dismissed the headline as click-bait and then suggested that the story was not currently contemporaneous.
Comprehension is key
Let’s first of all deal with the matter of basic English comprehension as I liberally quote verbatim from the new story under review.
The statement read, ‘It has been observed that despite the issuance of a couple of circulars vide HQ/GMHR/CON/G.3/128 of 25th August, 2008 and HQ/CR/AD/G.1/3039 of 19th December, 2014 on corporate Dress Code, some employees still indulge in improper dressing to the office.’
Now, there is no date as to why this became a current news story, but a number of things are evident from the first paragraph of the statement purportedly released by the Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA). In both 2008 and 2014, a circular was released to address the matter of corporate dress codes, the last clause of the paragraph, suggests some employees still indulge.
This indicates, this statement released was post-December 2014, and any time between December 2014 and September 2016, the general manager of the NPA found it necessary to reference previous circulars and then restate the need to follow the directives as neatly referenced in the statement.
YNaija at the end of the article then informs us that a new managing director was appointed last month, I would leave out any reference I have observed of the appearance and apparel of the new appointee. Yet, one has to question whether it is a mere coincidence or a deliberate act of the reinforcement of some values and mission statement that the manner of dress should make the news soon after the appointment of a new head of the NPA. I will wager, it is no coincidence and by that suggest, this statement is current, recent and for now.
After women without doubt
Then to the detail of the statement.
For the avoidance of doubt, it is hereby reiterated that inappropriate dressings such as tight jeans trousers, cut-off trousers, mini-skirts/dresses, tummy and navel shirt transparent/exposing outfits, spaghetti strapped dresses, mismatched clothes, rubber slippers, tattered shoes and rough hairstyles, (to mention but a few) that are unnecessary distractions would no longer be condoned and will henceforth attract appropriate sanctions.
From the highlighted bits of the above paragraph, you would find it strange that I was engaged in a discussion where someone disingenuously suggested this prescriptive delineation, was unisex rather than referring to women in particular. I am trying to get my head around the idea that men wear dresses to work or are inclined to adorn drag costumes.
The later part of the paragraph might well apply to all genders, but we would be deceiving ourselves if we did not recognise that this was primarily addressed to womenfolk and any inclusion of men in this apparent scattergun generalisation of mismatched clothes, slippers, shoes and hairstyles was purely coincidental.
The subjectivity of decency and moderation
In closing, there is a clear adjuring of the line management in the terms below:
In view of the foregoing and to further maintain a positive corporate image of a reputable organisation, all divisional, departmental and sectional heads, especially heads of personnel are once again enjoined to ensure monitoring of compliance of employees (sic) dressings (sic) with emphasis on decent, moderate and smart national and formal English wears (sic).
In other words, the NPA has initiated a fashion police of its management chain to ensure decent and moderate ‘dressings’ amongst the ranks.
Now, I have no issue with an organisation striving to ensure its employees and representatives present a business and corporate look towards what they call a ‘positive corporate image of a reputable organisation’. Whether that is the clear objective or something more sinister is play is left to conjecture.
The control of feminine apparel
What we cannot deny is the fact that some societies actively measure their moral standing through the control and regulation of the apparel of their womenfolk. Nigeria is no stranger to moves to introduce prescriptive dress codes on women from the National Assembly, spearheaded by supercilious and sententious women ably supported by men on grounds of religion, culture, and tradition. This issue is ably discussed in a piece for OpenDemocracy.Net by Dr. Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, titled, Of mini-skirts and morals: social control in Nigeria.
The matter of what is decent, moderate or moral is subjective. Only last week, the Indian Tourism Minister was advising, or should we say, instructing female tourists not to wear skirts or walk alone in small or rural cities in response to the many high profile assaults women have suffered in India. [The Guardian]
Whilst, the advice is well-intentioned, it does not address the real issue which is a seeming tolerance of assault occasioning the abuse and violation of women based on their appearance, rather than a zero-tolerance towards men who appear to be excused to act as wild beasts completely without control of their urges and actions when they sight a woman unaccompanied or dressed in some particular way.
My view was and still remains that the Tourism Minister and even everywhere else, the louder campaign should follow the mantra of the demonstrations in 2012 to which I penned an opinion piece. It's a Dress, NOT a Yes.
Then in France, we have the culture and political wars on the burkini and other conflated religious and cultural apparel that women either choose or are probably compelled to wear. [Spiked-Online]
It is paternalistic at best
However, back to the main issue, the NPA is within its rights to advice and suggest all employees should present professionally in apparel and in manner, but when you begin to single out particular items of clothing as a laundry list of the unacceptable, one begins to wonder if it is adults being addressed or kids.
This goes to the general paternalistic situation of many societies where from childhood people take instruction and as hierarchies develop into adulthood, there is some sort of elite that arrogates to itself some lordship of the others, in religious, in corporate, in cultural, in social and in traditional settings that dictates what others must do or suffer some consequence.
It is an unhealthy power dynamic that robs people of reasoning capacity, autonomy, initiative, ownership of their choices and ultimately responsibility.
As we genuflect to authority figures in an obsequious desire of their approbation, we lose individuality and uniqueness in personality to some dronish conformance to some boring norm. We might as well all be poured into one-sized uniforms of appearance and conduct. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, anyone?
Treat adults as adults
I want to believe that we all as adults should know how to conduct ourselves in a corporate environment and by that, it would pertain to dress and attitude, that it should not need some overbearing government apparatchik to command the state of dress on anyone.
The few outliers who are unaware of what conduct should pertain can be addressed directly and probably mentored by example and encouragement, without insulting the intelligence of the broader majority that knows how to behave.
That, in my view, is a better way to approach this issue. We are in an era where such silly excesses of officialdom pretending to some vision and mission statement conveyed through the regulation of dress will be excoriated without respite.
Give people the freedom and respect to be responsible adults and you will get responsible people, begin to order them around and you’ll have a riot on your hands in no time. It goes without saying that the NPA statement was a public relations disaster, it could have been better written and conveyed a much-matured approach, but what is power abused, if it cannot be condescending and there is much belittlement, condescension, patronising and unmitigated abuse in Nigeria – it needs to stop.
Finally, whilst the way people dress might be an outward expression of character and personality, it does not define character, personality nor integrity, we should not get that concept wrong and how you dress is neither a measure nor definer of your ultimate productivity in any environment. The prescription of dress in any emancipated society should only pertain to health and safety procedures and never on subjective morality issues.

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