By Rob L. Wagner
11 June 2011
The fascination among the media about what Saudi girls and women wear seems to have no expiration date. Just last week an online newspaper reported that Makkah’s general education directorate issued a warning that schoolgirls must dress appropriately with “decent uniforms.”
As if the press’ obsession with Saudi women’s clothing is not enough, we now apparently must scrutinize the clothing of girls and young teenagers. The tone of such articles is mild amusement. Yet I sympathize with Saudi education officials. Enforcing a school dress code is hardly an archaic notion. Many education institutions worldwide demand that students adhere to a dress code whether it is a school uniform or simply exercising proper decorum is an academic environment.
For Saudi students, education officials want girls to avoid clothing designed for boys and men, not wear belts, keep their blouses buttoned up and wear clothing with zippers that zip up the back and not the front. OK, so in the West that seems a little excessive, but it is not unreasonable in Saudi Arabia. It’s only right that as Muslims we follow the principles of modesty and adapt to the environment we live in.
When I was a middle schooler back in the days when Americans thought paying 35 cents for a gallon of gasoline was an outrageous price, we had a dress code. It was a period of cultural rebellion, so teens openly defied school authorities. Educators demanded with varying degrees of success that boys wear a collared shirt, tuck their shirts in their trousers and wear a belt. Our hair was not to fall below the collar. Sideburns — if we were fortunate to be able to grow them — should be above the earlobe. For girls, skirts and dresses were not to be more than 3 inches above the knee (mini-skirts and go-go boots were big then). No exposed belly buttons and no low-rise jeans.
Years later when I became a father, my 7-year-old son at his elementary school walked across a stretch of grass ignoring a “No Walking on Grass” sign. The school principal disciplined him. I thought the punishment was a bit harsh. I met with the principal, who told me the issue was not so much damaging the grass, but following the rules. He said his job was to instill respect in society’s standards.
The same philosophy applies to school dress codes. Schools help young people understand decorum and the standards of society.
Societal pressure maintains standards that vary from country to country, but as adults we can do pretty much as we please. In the workplace, many businesses outside the corporate world go casual. In the United States I’d venture to say that most offices have relaxed dress codes. But what you wear says a lot about you. T-shirts and jeans in the office? Well, here is a person that not only doesn’t take himself seriously, but neither do his clients and co-workers. First impressions are important and what one wears in the workplace, at universities and even in casual settings sends a message.
Enforcing a dress code at the primary and secondary school level establishes the building blocks for how young people enter society. As they become adults, some students may decide that jeans and T-shirts are perfectly fine with them. But at least they have an awareness of what society expects of them. A student growing up with a school dress code can tell the difference between what is proper decorum and what identifies him or her as someone who doesn’t care much about the impression.
There is a great “Seinfeld” television episode where George Costanza walks into Jerry’s apartment dressed in a T-shirt and sweat pants. Jerry looks at him and says something to the effect, “You have given up on life, haven’t you?”
Whenever one of my daughters meets me for lunch in the middle of the day or dinner in the evening wearing sweat pants, I give them the same line. They don’t do it so much anymore, at least not in front of me. But if my daughters’ middle and high schools did a better job of enforcing a dress code, they might have a better idea of what is appropriate attire for specific circumstances.