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Dress codes for female teachers: 'Their clothing seems to be more important than their teaching skills.'

Rouhollah Aghasaleh is a doctoral candidate in educational theory and practice at the University of Georgia and co-founder of Feminist Scholar-Activists.

He titled this piece: “Dress Codes for Future Teachers; A Middle Eastern Observation on American Teacher Education.”

On the issue of teacher dress codes, I've been surprised at the attention to what female teachers wear and the limits placed on them. A neighbor who taught pre-k was advised once by a principal to wear dress pumps rather than flats even though she spent her day keeping up with 4-year-olds. Another teacher told me her principal suggested female teachers wear dresses rather than slacks.

By Rouhollah Aghasaleh

Everybody stand up! Stretch your arms! If you see any skin revealed from your belly then what you’re wearing is inappropriate. Bend over! If your back shows at all, then what you’re wearing is inappropriate. You shouldn’t wear short skirts!

Don’t think these words were said by ISIS in Iraq, Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, or Boko Haram in Nigeria. These words were said by a white well-educated instructor at a secular public university in a so-called first world liberal country. These words were meant to awaken teacher candidates and let them know they shouldn’t take their bodies to their classrooms.

If you travel to my country, Iran, before you get off the plane and inhale some fresh Iranian air, something slams in your face. A member of the revolutionary guard gets on the plane and passes out head-scarfs to women who have not covered their hair yet. She does this with a big smile if you do not look like an Iranian lady.

The Iranian Guardian Council Chair last year declared the new government ought to take women’s dress code more seriously. This senior cleric stated that it would be easier for the government to control its female employees, who get paid out of the public budget, than to control women more generally. He also added university faculty should consider this issue as part of their course evaluations and grades for female students.

I was reminded of this on my first day of serving as a teacher candidate supervisor in a Southern state, attending one of our teacher candidates’ orientations. In the meeting, teacher candidates, who will spend a good part of the next two years in schools participating in field experiences, were bombarded by instructions mostly having to do with disciplinary issues, seductively polished as “Professionalism.”

A good part of this professionalism was about disciplining bodies through dress code; and of course the body that needs to be more controlled is the woman’s body. Interestingly, as a supervisor, one of the criteria I am supposed to consider in my evaluation of the field experience students is to see if they have been able to discipline their bodies through dressing “appropriately.”

Talking to my students, I was surprised to realize our policy is more conservative than school district own policies for teacher dress. This policy has been adopted for teacher candidates’ own “good,” said one of the experienced supervisors. Living in the South, the supervisor said teacher candidates might not be able to find a teaching job if they don’t honor the community’s values and culture.

As an educator, I always ask myself how much we should adjust our pedagogy to the current community values and how much we should push to make a difference. Do we have to adjust our pedagogy to the community’s values and culture if we live in a racist/ sexist/ homophobic community?

What commitment does our teacher education program have to create a better place for women to live?

Women represent the overwhelming majority of teachers in U.S. schools. Despite the feminization of the teaching profession, the female body in a school environment is still a matter of “objectification.’’

Female teachers’ bodies matter before the quality of their teaching, and their clothing seems to be more important than their teaching skills.

If you’ve lived long enough you may remember the time that police measured women’s swimming suits on the beach to make sure there was not excessive amount of body appearing.

This may sound ridiculous now, but the hem-measuring picture with this essay is very similar to what we practice nowadays in our teacher education programs.

Program coordinators, senior faculty, and teacher supervisors I have talked to agree on a couple points. They had not thought about the dress code policy as a gendered issue. They always assumed this is about being professional.

When I shared a note in which I compared these dress code policies to Iranian dress code policy, my colleagues were offended because I was not supposed to compare U.S. liberal democracy to a theological totalitarian regime. They thought they have such a respect for women and don’t discriminate against them whereas the Islamic regime is obviously oppressive toward women.

As long as women are objectified as sexual bodies to be controlled rather than as intellectuals, there is no wonder why the state of Georgia is ranked the 41st best state for women to live and why the U.S. is not one of the 71 countries in the world that has had a female president or prime minister.

In fact, the United States ranks 97th for number of women in national government where women comprise only 20 percent of Congress.

Colleges of education are places where many women are educated across Georgia and the country as a whole. Teacher educators can decide to continue practices, such as strict “dress codes,” that perpetuate ideas of sexism and the control of women, or they can consider those practices within a global context of oppression against women.

Doing the latter could open up new possibilities for the empowerment of women in Georgia.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.