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Pakistani Universities Dictate ‘Conservative’ Dress Code

Students walking outside the campus at Bacha Khan University. (file photo)
Students walking outside the campus at Bacha Khan University. (file photo)

Students at two public universities in northwestern Pakistan are speaking out against conservative dress codes that ban women from wearing jeans, tights, and makeup while requiring men not to wear earrings, torn jeans, or shorts.

The bans are yet another effort at regulating public life in the Muslim country, where some governments and frequent vigilante campaigns attempt to enforce veils, conservative dress codes, and gender segregation in the name of following Islam or promoting national identity.

“Everyone at the university is a mature adult. If our families have no issue with how we dress, the university has no right to prevent us from wearing what we like,” Hina, a student at Bacha Khan University in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, told Radio Mashaal. “We all come from different backgrounds and wear what we can afford.”

Abass Khan, another student at Bacha Khan University, told Radio Mashaal that such bans project Pakistan as a narrowminded country. “Universities in our country are not supposed to follow a dress code, so we can dress the way we like,” he said. “If someone’s brother and father won’t stop someone from dressing a certain way, why should the head of a university?”

But the vice chancellor of Bacha Khan University, Bashir Ahmed, has a different idea. Last month he joined Hazara University, another public institution in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in imposing a sweeping dress code. Official notices on campus told female students to stop wearing jeans, tights, T-shirts, excessive makeup, and jewelry, and to stop carrying large handbags. Male students were instructed to stop wearing ripped jeans, flip-flops, long hair, and ponytails.

Men and women are now required to wear “conservative formal or business-casual dress” with girls asked to wear black gowns known as abayas in some Arab countries and cover their heads with scarves.

“We have prepared recommendations in light of what kind of dress our religion and culture allows,” Abdul Hakeem, a spokesman for Bacha Khan University, told Radio Mahsaal. “We are following orders from the governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, who asked us to do so.”

Radio Mashaal’s was not successful in reaching the governor’s office for a comment. However, Aysha Bano, a provincial lawmaker of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf political party, says the governor’s main motive was to foster a sense of equality among rich and poor students.

“The governors had issued wide-ranging instructions,” she told Radio Mashaal. “But it looks like some universities made some changes that made the students unhappy or uncomfortable.”

Shahid Rabanni, a spokesman for Hazara University, says that while they don’t plan to strictly enforce the ban, they want to encourage people on campus to look “civilized” and cultivate a positive attitude. “Our advice is not only for students, but it applies to everyone at the university,” he said. “We would like to see an end to fashion and makeup competitions among students so that the poor do not feel left behind.”

Bushra Mahsud, a student leader at Hazara University, says clothing and makeup should be a personal choice. “In my view, so much interference is not a good idea,” she said.

Sajid, another student at Hazara University who gave his first name only, says everyone already dresses modestly, and such a ban is only aimed to control them.

“I have never seen anyone walking around in a miniskirt here, but such steps are aimed at depriving us of the little freedom and rights we enjoy,” he told Radio Mashaal. “Now that they are forcing us to follow a dress code, everyone has to invest money in buying new dresses and shoes,” he added while rejecting his campus’s claim that the move bolsters equality.

Muqadassa Noor, another student, says universities should attempt to address real issues instead on focusing on what students are wearing.

“I feel comfortable wearing jeans, and I like following fashion trends,” she told Gandhara. “Makeup helps you look better. I see nothing wrong with the way I want to carry myself, but others should be allowed to dress the way that pleases them,” she added. “Everyone knows how to protect their name and reputation.”

Farooq, another student who gave his first name only, supports the ban but is against cutting his hair. “It is really up to one’s individual taste how long they want to keep their hair, but I am against ponytails and ribbons because then you don’t look decent.”

Mir Wali Shah, head of the architecture department at Hazara University, says the faculty is pleased with the new dress code that requires them to wear black gowns while teaching. “We don’t have any objections to this and feel that our management must have made this decision after careful deliberations,” he told Radio Mashaal.

But Noreen Naseer, a politics lecturer at Peshawar University, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s oldest university, argues the controversy over dress codes is distracting institutions from their main job of teaching.

“They ban debates and attempt to police our thinking, then they discuss such petty issues [as what people wear],” she noted. “Our main issues are whether we are able to conduct classes for master’s and PhD students and whether we are able to conduct research,” she added. “It is not a teacher’s job to worry about how students dress or how long their beards are.”

Last year, a Pakistani University retracted a ban on lipstick after it sparked a widespread backlash.