Student dress codes – A delicate balancing act

Citing reasons ranging from safety to educational benefits, culture and values, several African universities have adopted dress codes for students or are tightening up on existing codes. However, despite their popularity among administrators, dress codes are being challenged by students who argue they are an affront to their freedom and human rights.

Among those African institutions making the news more recently for its dress code is Zambeze University in Mozambique. According to an online news report, the university has, as part of its updated dress code policy, banned dreadlocks, sandals, shorts and tight dresses from being worn by students.

In February this year it was reported that the University of Lagos in Nigeria had introduced a new dress code which banned tight-fitting clothes, transparent clothing, spaghetti tops, mini-skirts, and inappropriate outfits such as party wear, beach wear and bathroom slippers.

Concerns over inappropriate attire have also triggered dress codes in two private universities in Kenya.

While not as specific, a code calling for students to “dress decently” and “respect the institution and its values” is in place at Morocco's Al Akhawayn University. Egypt's University of Science and Technology calls for students to dress in “a dignified manner” in clothing that is “appropriate to the academic setting and the Egyptian culture”.

Global phenomenon

Africa is not alone in having dress codes. Several universities around the world have adopted dress code for students (and staff in some cases) including Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, Pakistan's Bahria University, Hampton University and Saint Augustine’s University in the United States and the Sydney School of Veterinary Science in Australia.

In addition to being motivated by issues of cultural and institutional values, some institutions in Africa, such as the University of Buea in southwestern Cameroon, which was the subject of a 2012 press report on the issue, perceive the imposition of a dress code as a way to contain sexual violence and harassment towards women.

The link between dress and sexual harassment is highly controversial but it persists, even in academic circles, and potentially influences policy in some institutions.

For example, a research paper from Uganda dealing with the prevalence of sexual harassment in medical schools, published in the International Journal of Academic Research in Education and Review, recommends that administrators promote decent dressing of female students “to avoid luring males into sexual feeling and behaviours. Institutions should design decent uniforms for medical students where need be”.

In early October, Alexandria University in Egypt reportedly banned “inappropriate” forms of dress in a move which sparked some controversy, particularly among students. Government officials, according to a press report, also attributed the decision to an attempt to reduce sexual harassment on campus.

Addressing the issue of sexual harassment and clothing, Noha Mohamed Abdel-Fatah, a female student at the faculty of science of Mansoura University, Egypt, told University World News: "Two wrongs don't make a right."

"Even if a female student’s dress is considered sexy, this does not give an excuse to male students to sexually harass her," she said.

"Both female and male students must act in a responsible way that respects culture and university as a learning environment," Abdel-Fatah said.

Link to student behaviour

According to Chika Josephine Ifedili of the faculty of education at the University of Benin, Nigeria, and lead author of a recent report entitled Implementation and Management of Students' Dress Code in Nigerian Universities, there is a link between dress and student behaviour, and dress codes have major benefits.

"African values are built on moral heritage and so students should accept a dress code, which is very important as it affects behaviour and academic performance of students. Attitudes and values of students constitute not only an important integral dimension of their education but also the critical factor in the level of discipline," she told University World News.

"Student dress is not just a matter of taste, comfort or convenience but it must be socially acceptable and not distracting," said Ifedili. "University students are being trained to be professionals and a dress code is a way to prepare students for the labour market after graduation."

Her views find support in information published by the student career office at the American University in Cairo which states that 60% of job applicants are screened out because their appearance does not fit the organisational image.

According to Abdelkader Djeflat, an Algerian higher education expert based at the University of Lille in France, some discipline around dress was needed in universities owing to the kind of behaviour and extravagant style being displayed in some of the bigger universities in North Africa.

He said students were guilty of “all sorts of ills” in their dress – be it tight fitting or revealing clothing items, which, he said, “carry obscene messages".

"Some of the clothes are distracting in the context of the lecture theatre, while others are more suitable for ceremonies and include the latest fashion, exaggerated make-up, perfumes and the like. They are not appropriate for a decent, hard-working and disciplined environment," Djeflat said.

Effect on academic performance

While separate research studies conducted in Nigeria and Ghana suggest that there is a link between inappropriate dress and poor academic performance, a 2016 thesis by Kenyan academic Dan Mugo Maina on the legal aspects of university dress codes argues that a “free” dress environment would have little effect on delivery of education.

The dissertation is a desk-based incursion into the constitutionality of enforcing dress codes in institutions of higher learning with the threat of sanctions. While it recommends that a dress code policy be maintained, it suggests that the threat of punishments for non-conformity could be considered unconstitutional.

However, some people continue to perceive dress codes as a violation of essential freedoms. An online petition argues that dress codes violate the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19, which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression”.

Moreover, the petition argues that dress restrictions also violate Article 26 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states, "Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace."

Full development of the personality of a person cannot be achieved when the person cannot express his or her views, it argues.

Among students themselves, opinions understandably vary. From Egypt, Omar Abdel-hamid Al-shafee, a recent graduate from the faculty of computers and information at Misr Higher Institute for Commerce and Computers, told University World News: "Students are adult enough to take care of their appearance on campus but they must act appropriately".

"Career centres at universities must provide students with basic skills on ways to take care of their appearance at job interviews and work places as part of professional development programmes," Al-shafee said.

Omar Shaltot, a student in the faculty of pharmacy at Mansoura University, Egypt, said: "Why are university students challenging dress codes at higher education institutions but at the same time accepting dress codes in the work place after graduation?

"A flexible and general student dress code at university that respects students’ freedom and right to choose their clothes could be good to prepare students for professional life," Shaltot said.

Balancing interests

Asked how to balance rights, freedoms and the reputations of higher education institutions, Michael LaBossiere, professor of philosophy at US-based Florida A&M University, told University World News that JS Mill’s principle of liberty offered a point of departure.

"If a student’s attire does not cause meaningful harm to others, then the student has the liberty to dress as they wish. This is, of course, subject to Mill’s point that this liberty does not free a person from the consequences of their choices," LaBossiere said.

Djeflat said tolerance of difference was required.

"The university dress should take into account the fact that student populations are made up of mature people with fundamental rights and people of different beliefs and backgrounds and in such a community, the social practices will obviously differ. This calls for tolerance," he said.

Calling for “balance” between the rights of students and the needs of the university environment in terms of efficiency, respect and appropriateness, Samir Khalaf Abd-El-Aal, professor of genetics and molecular biology at the National Research Centre in Cairo, suggested that students should be given the chance to vote on a general dress code that protected students' rights but also respected local cultural and social conditions, along with the identity of the institution.