Who wears the pants in Ledumang classrooms? The school head teacher Baopedi Othusitse insists that the school dress code assigns skirts for girls and pants for boys.
This seemingly harmless gendering process however covers a multitude of sins. The right to wear trousers is associated with male privilege and dominance hence the question, “who wears the pants?” It is this “pants power” symbolism that has spawned many feminists fights for the right to wear trousers.
Female politicians were not permitted to wear pants on the US Senate floor until 1993. It was 2013 before an (ultimately rarely used) by law requiring women in Paris to ask permission from city authorities before “dressing as men” was finally revoked. Women in Malawi were not permitted to wear trousers at all between 1965 and 1994. This is not about style or gender at play, but power, and British women leading the “Trousers for all” campaign insist that it is the case when discussing something as seemingly minor and mundane as school uniform.
17 year old Ledumang Senior Secondary School girl, Mitchell Pelaelo this week launched an urgent application with the High Court in Lobatse to be allowed to wear trousers to school. The application, spearheaded by Botswana Network on Ethics, Law and HIV/AIDS (BONELA) however skirts around the subliminal sexual discrimination in the school uniform policy and zeroes in on how the policy privileges gendering over the right to learn.
According to an affidavit by Mitchell’s mother, Evidence Pelaelo, her daughter who is undergoing psychiatric examination for her compulsion to wear trousers has been flogged or turned back home on a number of occasions for showing up for class in pants. She was recently suspended from school while examinations were on going. According to the affidavit, the decision to suspend Mitchell from school “is unreasonable or irrational in that she is undergoing her end of term examinations. So far she has been denied the opportunity to sit for her English Literature examinations.”
Mitchell’s lawyer appointed by BONELA, Gosego Lekgowe last week applied for an order that the matter be heard on urgency; that the schools decision to suspend Mitchell be set aside; that Mitchells mother file an application for judicial review of the school’s decision on or before 8th April 2017 and that pending the institution, hearing and finalisation of the application for judicial review, the school be interdicted from implementing its decision to suspend Mitchell from school.
The presiding Judge, Michael Leburu ordered that Mitchell’s application was urgent but that she had failed to make out a proper case for the relief she was seeking. Justice Leburu further ordered that Ledumang Senior Secondary School and its head teacher should make “appropriate arrangements to enable “Mitchell to sit and write an examination she had missed and that Mitchell’s mother should motivate her request to have Mitchell “exempted from School uniform Regulations as stated in the School prospectus, before the school authourities and same shall be resolved in terms of the School Regulations.”
Justice Leburu further ordered that in the event Mitchell and her mother “are unhappy with the school’s decision, then they may bring a review application in terms of the High Court rules. Mitchell’s application was struck out and its party bore its own costs.
There is no case law on the challenges against schools’ legal rights to enforce their dress code. The only known case was in the UK and was settled out of court in 2000. Jo Hale, a 14-year-old pupil at Whickham comprehensive school in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, succeeded in a three-year campaign to be allowed to wear trousers.
In the settlement the school agreed to change its uniform policy, allowing girls to wear trousers and, more bizarrely, allowing boys to wear knee-length skirts and white socks.
Jo and her mother did not question the school’s right to have a uniform policy but claimed that its refusal to let girls have the choice to wear trousers amounted to sex discrimination.
The case was supported by the Equal Opportunities Commission. The commission’s chairwoman, Julie Mellor, described the outcome as “a victory for common sense. Trousers are smart and practical for the rigours of school life and there is no reason for girls not to wear them”.
The lawyer acting for Jo had argued that “when grooming code imposes different standards for men and women, the true principle ought to be whether this is reasonably regarded by the employees or students as imposing a real detriment on one sex. Forcing girls to wear skirts plainly falls foul of such a principle.”
Feminist blogger who goes by the pen name Glosswitch argues that “numerous studies have shown that stereotype threat ÔÇô a situation in which people feel themselves to be at risk of conforming to negative stereotypes pertaining to their social group ÔÇô matters a great deal when considering gender and education. Simply being reminded that one is the social construct “boy” or “girl”, as opposed to just “a pupil”, can affect an individual’s perception of his or her own ability and response to particular subject areas (eg “girls are no good at maths”, “boys don’t read books” etc). A school should be the last place where gendered codes which have already been broken down elsewhere are suddenly reintroduced. For a girl to have to wear a skirt in the classroom when she can wear trousers elsewhere sends a very particular message to her. She is not simply a learner; she is a girl-learner, confined by unspoken rules which limit her individual potential and constrain her social interactions.