Compelled to wear saree, young Kerala teacher says, 'sorry no'

'I noticed that the male teachers were not asked to follow any such dress code.'
For representational purposes. (Photo | PTI)
For representational purposes. (Photo | PTI)

KOCHI: She has cleared the UGC’s National Eligibility Test (NET), in addition to earning an MA in Literature and a B.Ed from two different central universities. If one assumes these qualifications were enough for Nanditha (name changed) to bag a contract job as an assistant professor in English, the management at the College of Applied Science (CAS) in Kodungallur apparently begs to differ.

There was another important criterion she was supposed to meet if she wanted the job at the institute, said Nanditha. She had to wear a saree every day, or she was free to say no to the job.

Incidentally, Nanditha had resigned from the Thiruvambadi branch of the CAS to join the Kodungallur branch. 

“The Kodungallur institute was closer to the place I stay, which was why I immediately accepted the offer when they called. Otherwise, I was comfortable teaching at Thiruvambadi because they had no issue with what I wore,” she said.

Nanditha went to the Kodungallur institute on October 1, as was instructed by the staffer who called her up with the job offer. 

“I could immediately see that they were unimpressed with my attire. I was wearing a kurta and leggings. One of the first things they told me was that 'all this wasn’t allowed here.' I apparently had to follow a strict dress code and wear a saree every day. I politely told them that neither did I own a saree nor did I know how to drape one. But the staff repeated that the principal was very particular about this ‘dress code’.”

And that’s when she decided to walk out. 

“I didn’t want the job if such restrictions were going to be imposed upon me. When I informed the staff there of my decision, they asked me to leave after writing a letter stating that I was not joining the institute due to personal reasons.”

These events are unfolding more than 13 years after the state government issued a circular – dated February 4, 2008 – allowing woman teachers to wear churidars or other attires while on duty. On non-implementation of this order, the government had issued a fresh circular on May 9, 2014, based on a complaint filed by a professional college faculty member.

Later in June in the same year, the state education department had to issue one more clarification in this regard, in the wake of yet another complaint filed by a then BEd student. The order directed deputy directors of education, district education officers, and heads of district institutions for education and training to see to it that no institution or school enforces a mandatory dress code on teachers. Several years later, however, women teachers continue to face such sartorial policing in the state's higher education institutes.

According to Ann Mary Thomas, a former guest lecturer at St Teresa’s College, Ernakulam, this imposition arises from a misplaced understanding of an ‘ideal Indian way of dressing’. 

“It comes from a very traditionalistic way of looking at things. Western formals, work casuals, sleeveless blouses, open pallus, and unconventional hairstyles are all frowned upon because those aren’t befitting of the image we have built of an ideal teacher,” she opined.

For Ann, hearing about Nanditha’s experience was a walk down the memory lane – to the time she first received the job as a teacher at the college. 

“I was wearing a formal pair of pants and shirt on the day of my interview. That day, the first thing I was told was that I had two options as a dress code – a saree or a nun’s habit. Suppose I had an injury and was unable to drape a saree, or if it was raining heavily and it was inconvenient to wear one, the only way out was to wear something else, come to college, change into a saree, and then go about my work. Basically, no matter how uncomfortable we are, we had to always be draped in one,” she recalls.

“When told about this ‘strict’ dress code, I felt like all my academic achievements were being erased in one go,” says Nanditha. 

“Suddenly, all that mattered was what I chose to wear. The years of effort I had put in to reach here were overlooked.”

She subsequently sent a follow-up letter to the institute and Higher Education Minister R Bindu, pointing out the injustice of such an imposition on women. 

“I noticed that the male teachers were not asked to follow any such dress code,” she emphasize in the letter. 

“I understand that my privilege and my support system allowed me to say no to the job. But this is not the case for many others, who have to face this policing in silence. What one chooses to wear is their personal decision. Being denied an employment opportunity based on this is simply unfair,” she adds.

On Monday, minister Bindu got in touch with Nanditha and assured her that a new circular would soon be issued from the higher education department, reinforcing the order that no institute should impose such dress codes on their teachers.

“The government has already made its stand clear multiple times. Teachers can wear what they are comfortable with. When I was teaching at Sree Kerala Varma College in Thrissur, I used to wear churidars very often. There should be no sartorial policing in our educational institutes,” Bindu tells TNIE. The minister further advises young women not to succumb to such pressures. "Our women should have the courage to take a strong stand against those who try to impose skewed ideas of morality on them," she adds.

The principal of CAS, Kodungallur, was unavailable for comment.

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