Sleeveless anger!

'Backward' dress code results in woman being denied yellow fever shot

BY KIMBERLEY HIBBERT
Observer staff reporter
hibbertk@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, November 06, 2017



A call by gender research expert Professor Verene Shepherd for the Government to revise its dress code for the public's interaction with its agencies and departments to reflect a more modern society is gaining support on social media, with one respondent stating that she was denied a health service because she was wearing a sleeveless blouse.

Professor Shepherd questioned the origin of the “no sleeveless” rule at government offices and institutions in Jamaica last week on Twitter after sharing that she went to a high school in St Thomas and the security guard looked into her vehicle and asked if anyone in the group was wearing a sleeveless top.

Her post led to a number of her social media followers, mainly women, beginning with Latoya West-Blackwood, speaking out against the rule, the hindrances it has caused, and questioning its necessity in modern society.

“With Kingston as one of the global cities experiencing climate change departure let's see if it will be death before sleeveless #mentalslavery,” West-Blackwood posted.

“I went to get a yellow fever shot, after waiting 20 minutes to register I was told that I couldn't get the shot because my top was sleeveless,” Melanie Schwapp tweeted in response.

“When I went to take my voters' ID pic I was sent away because my top was sleeveless,” Nationwide Radio presenter Patria-Kaye Aarons also tweeted.

Another individual, Warren Smith, tweeted that a friend of his was turned away from a government office because he was wearing slippers, even though he had a doctor's note stating that he was suffering from a foot ailment.

The series of tweets even led to human rights activist Susan Goffe posting a video of Prime Minister Andrew Holness's swearing-in ceremony showing Lady Allen, wife of the governor general, wearing a sleeveless dress.

In response to Schwapp, the Ministry of Health, via its Twitter page, apologised for the inconvenience she experienced and promised to investigate the matter.

West-Blackwood, who spoke with the Jamaica Observer, said the online call began after her mentor, Professor Shepherd, asked whether there was a law or rule concerning dress codes in Jamaica.

West-Blackwood said the post got her thinking of her own experiences visiting public places — hospitals, schools, and government offices — and having been greeted by the same dress code policy by strict enforcers, mainly security guards.

“Professor Shepherd isn't exactly known for inappropriate dressing, quite on the contrary, and so I wondered how many other Jamaican women were being denied access to critical services because of this backward rule. I did a Twitter post and the responses were eye-opening. There was even a case of a woman who went to a police station to report a threat and was denied that right because of her dress at the time. She left the station only to be killed by the person who had threatened her life. Now, if this isn't a cause for concern then I don't know what is,” West-Blackwood stated.

“I am yet to come across a formal law that speaks to dress codes in Jamaica to the point where citizens — men and women — are being denied critical services. Women are disproportionately impacted, and our bodies continue to be policed by religious rules that dictate we 'cover up' to stop men from lusting. It is time for us, as a modern independent State in a tropical climate, to revisit this matter urgently. No one is advocating for wearing a bikini to court or a suit to the beach, it's about realising that a lot of these rules are not based in logic and have no link to major issues like productivity which will help us to grow as a country,” West-Blackwood said.

According to attorney-at-law Michelle Thomas, the rule is not based in law, but is merely an adopted policy regarding accepted dress codes.

In 2015, the Observer's All Woman magazine explored the issue of no sleeveless attire in public agencies after a businesswoman was turned away from doing business at the then Kingston and St Andrew Corporation because she was wearing a dress with capped sleeves.

The 2015 story also highlighted the views of some individuals that the rules smack of Christian fundamentalism and a push to sexualise women's bodies.

One expert warned that this oversexualising is as bad as what obtains in “rape culture”, where some people believe women ask to be raped because of the clothes they wear.

“Let us not view modesty as an outdated kind of concept. Modesty is a virtue to aspire to. I am not making modesty the enemy,” Reverend Karl Johnson, general secretary of the Jamaica Baptist Union, said at the time. “However, I believe too many of our dress codes, whether wittingly or unwittingly, end up with this oversexualising mode, because if you check it out, I would be willing to hazard a guess that the majority of these target women.”

He said even when we look at both genders, the reason and rationale might be different.

“So, for example, when you talk about sleeveless or they talk about the length of your skirt, oftentimes it is to say, in some effect, that you are showing too much of yourself and perhaps causing a distraction to men. But if you look at the abhorrence some of us have for the boys who wear their pants at their hips and show their underwear, they don't say it is because it is distracting to women and making them want the men.”

He added:“Oftentimes the dress codes target women because we believe that women now are making themselves a greater temptation to men. If you are not careful, what you're doing is perpetuating that kind of thing, which is very evident in rape culture where they tell women they were inviting rape because they wore too short a dress or skirt.”

Johnson also pointed out that Jamaica's tropical climate can make long skirts and long sleeves very uncomfortable.

“In our setting, a tropical country, long sleeves and long skirts could be torturous. Go back to the rationale and ascertain what could make clothes inappropriate,” Johnson urged.

Meanwhile, West-Blackwood has said it is time for the rule to be challenged, as no one should be denied access to a critical services because they don't have a sleeve on.

“That's been the case in a number of instances, and it must stop. You put it into the context of the rural poor who come into major town centres for service and are denied because of this stupid rule; it makes it even more upsetting. Not everyone has the luxury of going home and coming back. Modesty must be maintained, but I'm sure we can think of clothing with sleeves that are immodest. The rule needs to be revised,” she said.

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