Foreign Policy Blogs

Uniform: restriction and liberation

shirt on a line, courtesy Robynlou Kavanagh/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Depending on how you are dressed, you can signal your status, identity, job and a myriad other markers which help locate you in a sociopolitical context.

They can show your distinctiveness, or membership within a group. Many jobs require a uniform, from the armed forces to hospitals to customer services, and in many countries around the world, children are also expected to wear a uniform to attend school.

I attended such a school, and while I and my fellow ex-pupils now look back at our Black Watch tartan-and-green-wool get-up with some form of nostalgia, the ridicule it sometimes inspired wasn’t particularly wanted attention. But attention does need to be given to the less-considered issue of Afghan girls’ school uniforms. Surely the fact that these girls can attend a school is progress enough, considering the tense balancing act between “tradition” and “human rights” that is being enacted? Depending on your point of view, that may be enough. But it’s not enough for the schoolgirls who are forced to wear black dress in the stifling 50C heat of Afghani summers. As one pupil pointedly remarks, “The education minister is sitting in an air conditioned office. What does he know about the conditions we’re in, or how hot these black clothes get?”

It is not uncommon for girls to faint, with a teacher interviewed by IPWR noting that the all-black stricture also has negative psychological effects on pupils due to the color’s deep association with funerals, mourning and death. This idea was supported by a mental health professional, who argued that, “It’s generally considered that black is the symbol of grief, disappointment and disaster. When a pupil puts on her black clothes, these perceptions are subconsciously reinforced and they have a negative impact on her studies.”

The Education Ministry is aware of the issue, though whether this will actually translate into anything meaningful is questionable. The chairman of the ministry’s academic council stated that there were more important things the ministry needed to concentrate on (as if the mental and physical health of a not-insignificant section of the population was not of concern); a school pupil was sceptical of any possibility of change: “The education ministry takes decisions however it pleases…When have they ever asked students their opinion?”

Women in certain professions are also required to wear uniforms, such as Amela Zukovic, a police officer in Bosnia-Herzegovina. While the former Yugoslavia proclaimed sexual equality, the resulting states have not continued with upholding it, however flimsy the equality initially was. Despite official rhetoric, fathers and husbands often forbade women to take certain jobs or do certain kinds of work. IWPR’s article about Bosnian women claiming their position in the labor market is a brief peek into an aspect of a society which no longer dominates international headlines.

Some women have managed to succeed in more male-dominated careers, but an unsettling trend has also emerged. Zlatiborka Popov-Momcinovic argues that while some women have indeed carved out a career for themselves, an increasing post-socialist trend of “re-traditionalization” is rearing its head with women being directed “back to the “private sphere” of home and family, where those of conservative mindset feel they properly belong.” This is not to discount the choices of women who have made the personal decision to concentrate on their family, however, for those women for whom there is no choice, this is indeed a rather unwelcome development.

To finish this brief post — and to finish on perhaps a more lighthearted note — while exploring the wonder that is SSRN, I came across the journal article, “Smart women, stupid shoes and cynical employers.” Published in 1997, the article raises “a critical but curiously neglected medical and legal issue for women: do they have the right to wear whatever shoes are best for their health at work?” High heels have been proven to contribute to foot injuries, pain and deformities but some groups of women — in this article, the author selects flight attendants — are required to wear such shoes as part of their work uniform. He sets up their choice as one of “getting or keeping a job and their continued ability to walk unimpaired.”

It really is a fascinating article — the citations and quotations from the 1930s-1950s quite emphatic — and one which may provoke you to think about your own required dress code, should there be one.



Cate Mackenzie

Cate works as an editor in Zürich, Switzerland. She holds an MA in Comparative and International Studies from ETH Zurich, and a BA (Hons) in International Studies with Political Science from the University of Birmingham (UK).

She has previously lived and worked in Fiji and the US.