Monday, May 27, 2024

Current dress code for women resisted in 1970s

The controversial dress code that the Directorate of Public Service Management introduced in 2009 was apparently resisted by women in the civil service in the 1970s through an association called the Women Development Planning and Advisory Council (WODPLAC). The circular in question forbade women in the civil service from wearing clothing that revealed cleavage, bareback, chest, armpits, stomach, and underwear; casual and gym wear including jeans and shorts; and, short and or tight skirts, pants and dresses.

In her book, “Madam Speaker, Sir!”, parliament speaker, Margaret Nasha, says that the government tried to implement this regulation in the 1970s but WODLAC pushed back so mightily that the it backed down. “Women in the civil service were not allowed to wear any kind of trousers to work. This is one regulation we fought with all our might.

Later on, this regulation was amended to allow women to wear trousers except jeans. That amendment did not find favour with some women at that time, and they fought it until the whole fracas about dress code for women in the civil service ultimately ended. That is why I was quite upset when this regulation was re-introduced in 2009, and women in the civil service allowed it to pass, literally unnoticed, and without any attempt to raise their voices against it,” Nasha writes in her book.

She faults the language of the DPSM circular of being “so authoritarian that it did not even sound like official correspondence. It looked like someone just woke up one morning, after having seen something somewhere that he or she did not like, and put their unedited thoughts on paper.” She slams the current dress code as “retrogressive” and thinks that it is “a shame and an embarrassment that such sexist and archaic rules should govern women in the public service of modern day Botswana.”

That however, was not the thinking of some women in the civil service. Thendirector of women affairs department in the Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs, Matty Legwaila, defended the government’s decision saying that DPSM didn’t single out women but crafted the dress code for all civil servants. Nasha joined the civil service at a time that the workplace was designed in such manner as to be as unfriendly to women as possible.

Female nurses were required to resign from the service as soon as they fell pregnant and husbands could demand that their wives be released from employment and stay home. WODPLAC fought against these regulations but looking back, Nasha feels that they could have done more in the late 1960s and early 1970s because, ironically, leaders of that time were more receptive to change than today’s. “We missed that opportunity and now the situation has become even tougher. We have very few allies in positions of power today, who are willing and able to bring about meaningful changes in the situation of women in Botswana,” she writes.


Read this week's paper