Wed, Apr 25, 2012 - Page 8

A good dressing down

Chang Ming-jen’s letter (Letters, April 17, page 8) concerning the Wenzao Ursuline College dress code stands as a good example of the ubiquitous slut shaming and double standards that remain a central feature of Taiwanese culture.

First, why did Chang feel it necessary to mention the French professor’s experience? Was it perhaps to imply that Taiwanese students should feel lucky not to be beaten up for wearing “skimpy” clothing and if so, is this not a clear case of apologizing for the “she was asking for it” line of argument?

Second, why is it better to “dress up?” Does what a person wears affect their ability to use their intellect or study?

Third, aside from the blanket assumption that “students like to wear skimpy clothing,” why does Chang single out “girls wearing hot pants or revealing clothes on campus” as inappropriate?

Finally, Chang’s ideas for handling “the problem” are both laughable and betray a deep misogyny. Chang’s call for girls to mind the length of their skirts or shorts reminds me of a scene from the film Persepolis in which Iranian police stop a young woman as she is running to class. Their reason is that when she runs her bottom moves in an obscene way. To which the young student brilliantly retorts “then stop staring at it!”

The problem is not young female students and their clothing (I also wonder how Wenzao would cope with transsexuals and their dress codes) but the arcane chauvinism that classifies women as objects of desire and seeks to control their bodies and thoughts, both on and off campus, throughout their lives.

In Taiwan, girls are often forced to wear skirts to high school. Aside from the issue of the not-so-subtle sexual fetishization of a girl’s school uniform, if we accept the argument that skirts are cooler and more comfortable to wear in the summer than trousers, why are boys not allowed to wear skirts?

How a person answers that question can say a lot about how they define male and female, masculinity and femininity. The issue of dress codes is complex and rooted in social constructions of sexuality, gender and identity.

In principle, I have no problem with a dress code for students as long as it is fair, applied equally to all and consistent. The problem is how to introduce dress rules for campus.

If you claim it is “to help students in the outside world” as Wenzao administrators did, all you teach students is that with power comes the ability to be deeply patronizing and inconsistent. If you claim it is to establish a certain aesthetic value on campus, then you need to establish who this rule applies to and when it will go into force.

Since the dress code was not part of the university’s regulations when the students signed up, can they be contractually obliged to obey new rules retroactively? Is this new rule going to be published clearly in the university in all its promotional and marketing material so that prospective students include it as a criterion for judging whether this university is the best fit for them?

If the answers to those questions from the university are, respectively, yes and no, then I think the students have every right to just go ahead and ignore the rule.

Finally, if we are honest, the intent of this rule is as much about regulating sex and female sexual power on campus as it is building a better reputation for the university off campus.

Separate dorms for men and women on many Taiwanese campuses also sends the message that they can’t be trusted to be together. To the university, the students are still children who require it’s patronage, wisdom, tolerance and guidance if they are to become fully functioning adults in the “outside world.”

If Wenzao wants to implement a dress code, then I suggest the following: It should publish the code in all university prospectuses and marketing material at least two years before introducing the rule and it should also require students to read and agree to the dress code as part of a wider, formal legal contract they will sign to enroll as a student.

In addition, dress codes should be drawn up for both male and female students but with no restriction on individual choice of use, current students should be exempt from complying and finally, a dress code for all members of university staff should chosen by the students.

Ben Goren