DR GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN
ALL CITIZENS in this country want a better functioning public service. One that is kinder, more efficient, more inclusive, and more accountable. Women, in particular, want state administration that doesn’t require them to appear respectable to access basic government services.
Why should women have to have their shoulders fully covered to speak to a public servant? Why should they be decently dressed, but denied access to a public building if their skirt does not hide their knees? Are women’s shoulders and knees such a threat to public order? Do women forfeit their rights as citizens if their attire doesn’t convey sufficient modesty?
I have been in government offices where a woman, wearing a totally inoffensive dress with wide straps, had to borrow a shawl to wrap around her in order to go inside. I know a woman, wearing cargo pants which cropped just above her ankle, who was told that shorts were not allowed in the viewing gallery of Parliament. I know a woman scorned by the security guard and supervisor, who closed the door on her and told her to return with her knees covered.
Who is being protected here? The public servants who themselves have shoulders and knees, and surely do not consider these body parts sources of heathenistic downfall? The institution of government, so hallowed yet so hollow, that it must establish its status through disciplining black and brown feminine bodies in the manner of petty colonial bureaucracy? Maybe what is being protected is an air of professionalism. Though, surely, that would be better established by excellent and efficient service than by how ordinary people arrive, bundling their needs, uncertainties, and troubles, at one government office or another.
How different is this from women being forced to cover their face or their head to access public life? All these people go about everyday getting their business done, dressing as they do, going to the grocery or the health centre or to work or to buy some doubles as they normally would.
So, yes, for various reasons, everyone wants a more helpful, and less judgmental, public service, particularly women whose appearance has nothing to do with their right to respect and responsiveness.
That’s the demand side. On the supply side of public administration, I’m also siding with women, but this time those working on the inside.
The PM ordered public servants back to work, ostensibly to counteract the public service’s near collapse from loss of productivity due to rotation, remote working and poorly-managed absenteeism. I empathise entirely with him, but all policy decisions are based on particular assumptions about reality.
How many public servants are women, and how many of these are mothers? It’s not only mothers that are important, the challenges of parenting at this time affect fathers too, but mothers still assume an unequal burden of care in two-parent families as well as in our high number of woman-headed households, so knowing the percentage in the public service should tell us something about their statistically significant juggling of family responsibilities.
Of those mothers, and fathers, how many have a safe and suitable place to leave their children, with schools and day-care centres still closed? In making this decision to return everyone to office, where did the PM expect children to be? Did he know how many had care options, or is gender-blind decision-making based on the assumption that women must ketch once man say so? Did the PM know that children are at higher risk of child sexual abuse when they don’t have such options? Does he know how many children are now at such increased risk, starting from this week?
If the family is the cornerstone of the nation, responsibility for care cannot be invisible and ignored. It is unfair to have to take vacation leave, sick leave or leave without pay because your children are your priority, when your employer is both narrowing your choices and forcing you to choose.
In my own life, there would have been no one to leave my daughter with all day, every day during online school. She’s nine, and I would have had to leave for work, hoping nothing goes wrong before I return home.
So, I am sending solidarity to women in the public service who are struggling in this way, and the ones struggling to get the service they need. We all want a better functioning and inclusive bureaucracy, but we also need a better, more gender sensitive, approach to who that considers, and what that means.
Diary of a mothering worker