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Wednesday 13 November 2019
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Commentary

Time to quash THA dress code

JOANNE JOHN

THE TOBAGO House of Assembly’s (THA) dress code has to be rescinded. It is an outdated, outmoded, distasteful leftover of a British colonial past.

This archaic policy is the dress code imposed on the citizenry when they want to conduct business in government and private sector offices. It is appalling and offensive that in 2019 women and men are being told what to wear from their head to their feet by legislators and policymakers.

Since returning to Tobago, I have been refused entry into the Victor E Bruce Financial Complex, the Ministry of National Security, Immigration Division, Republic Bank and the Dutch Fort Plaza, most of which are paid for by taxpayers.

In one instance I was wearing a hat, in another my shoulder wasn’t covered, and the third time I donned the wrong footwear. Consequently, I was unable to pick up a tax form, see my lawyer, apply for my son’s passport or donate money for flood victims in Trinidad without going home for a change of clothing.

The last time I was denied entry to an office building I was wearing the same outfit I wore to meetings with deputy ministers as a director general in the federal government of Canada. Yet my lawyer had to leave her office to meet with me on the sidewalk in front of the Dutch Fort building.

Each time I questioned the rationale behind my denial of entry to these buildings I was told, “It’s the policy.”

Over the course of my career, I held a number of positions requiring me to communicate and educate Canadians on a myriad of laws that were enacted in legislation and enforced in regulation, policy, processes and procedures. These governed everything from how Canadians drove their cars, purchased homes, educated their children and fed their families, to how they used social media or watched television.

The majority of them regulated how the society functioned on a daily basis, so in doing so they sought to remain flexible and adaptable to the changing needs of the people. In fact, it was a fundamental responsibility of government to not only enact legislation, create laws, and enforce them but also to review, assess and reassess them over time.

I believe it is time the THA reviews and reassesses its dress code policy, particularly at this juncture in the island’s development.

It is likely that the dress code policy arose because individuals, whether by choice or circumstance, appeared at the doors of some government and private sector buildings shabbily or inappropriately dressed.

I have no statistics to back up how many individuals attempted to enter buildings inappropriately dressed but my suspicion is that the policy was put in place without a great deal of research or testing.

Regardless, there is no issue with such offenders being reminded of the need to be properly attired or in specific cases, even turned away. But why the need for a blanket policy when it’s guaranteed that the majority of people conduct themselves with common sense and a clear understanding of what is appropriate?

Most of us do not need to be patronised and treated as children who don’t know how to dress so why not deal with the issue as the exception and not as the rule?

Tourists, returning residents, nationals and locals have all complained about this policy, more women than men because it seems like yet another attempt by policymakers, who are predominately male, at controlling women’s bodies by dictating what we put or don’t put on.

In recent weeks Tobago has been vilified in the press for being resistant to change and uninterested in moving toward a prosperous future. That may be true, but if Tobago chooses modernisation over the status quo it is the big and little things that demonstrate progress; improved telecommunications, enhanced service orientation, and major infrastructure changes are the elements that will encourage and attract visitors, tourists, and investors.

But when they arrive at our shores for pleasure or business and are turned away at the front door of an office building or bank because they are “inappropriately dressed,” there is much left to be desired. It is a small but powerful statement about Tobago’s openness, willingness to do business.

A society with a vision for the future cannot have one foot so firmly planted in the past with policies reminiscent of oppressive regimes, anti-feminism and fundamentalist religious doctrine. If TT expects to improve its posture on the Caribbean and world stages, it must firmly step into the 21st century and throw off the shackles of its colonial past, as evident in this dogmatic policy.

As Dr Gabrielle Hosein, head of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at UWI, St Augustine, wrote in her e-mail response to the question in a previous Newsday article:

“Preventing women from accessing state agencies and services because of sleeveless dresses or tops continues a long history of colonial policing of women’s bodies in ways that assume black and brown women’s lack of respectability and the need for them to be clothed in respectable ways in order to access citizenship.

“It’s an old position that colonial rules of dress humanise those who don’t have a right to inclusion, making them into proper subjects deserving of recognition and rights. This kind of rule is classist, but also inappropriate for the Caribbean today.”

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