The degraded quality of the citizenship of Kenyan women is clearly seen in just how quick society is in restricting female autonomy, including basics like choice of dressing. These unwanted and unnecessary policing of women is seen in Kenyan workplaces all across the country where dress codes are used to reproduce sexism and misogyny that reinforce societal attitudes of women’s role in the workplace. It is an unfortunate truth that a woman’s worth, and the right to bodily autonomy is still determined by men. At a recent Creative Dialogue by Hivos East Africa where the issue of dress codes and sexual harassment was discussed, it was sobering to hear just how often dress codes are used to justify and perpetuate sexual harassment.
The tainted roots of dress code
The dress code as we know it was, in the words of Andrew Odete, a panelist at the Creative Dialogue, “ Is modeled in the image of men”. Truly. In addition to that, the dress code is also modeled in the image of the ‘ideal man’ – as close to the Western Caucasian ideal as possible. Decades into independence, these identity issues continue to play out in workspaces today, where according to Uduak Amimo (a second panelist in the event), the Kenyan media faces an identity crisis. Its never quite reconciled itself to the fact that a typical Kenyan will have hair that grows naturally curly and bushy out of their scalp. Where hair -this powerful- meets dress codes that views afros, bantu knots, and dreadlocks as ‘untidy and unprofessional’ then the recourse is to ban ‘natural hair’ in favor of weaves, relaxed hair and other western looking hair. However, beyond this existential anguish of what is beautiful and normal and what isn’t as a beauty ideal, extremely malicious is the demonization of dress codes to either vilify women who dress “indecently” or those that are perceived to trade and hyper-sexualize women as a job requirement.
During the event- whose overarching theme was Kenyan Dress Codes in the workplace– it became abundantly clear that while all industries face this issue, some sectors and some professions are more vulnerable than others. Particularly affected by accentuation of sexual appeal are women in the service industry e.g. sales and marketing, TV anchors, hotel and restaurant workers amongst others. What was also clear was that conversations around why this norm is persistent are also because despite women being consumers of media and services, workplace thinking still primarily caters to the male gaze. It is still a world where employers expect women to dress ‘sexily’ to entice customers because sex sells- a statement that in addition to being problematic in and of itself, also assumes a world where women are not colleagues or customers.
The flip side of the coin is also a world where women are also expected to ‘wear decent clothes’ and thus allow fragile men to work in peace unmolested by the sight of female thighs or breasts. It also tells a dangerous mistruth about women who may choose to dress a certain way i.e. that they can be sexually harassed for noncompliance to the dress code.
What’s the problem?
While organizations have the right to enforce dress codes for workplaces, what should concern Kenyans are these dress codes that reproduce sexism and misogyny in the workplace. Generally, if you unpack the male dress code, it concentrates mainly on formalities (color and description of items). Women’s dress codes on the other hand will however be about shame and vilification of their right to choice of dressing. Dress codes as we’ve seen them in the country and not uniform, and also more expensive for women.
The respectability politics that infuse the dress codes continue to be perpetuated both by men and women. In Kenya, sessions on how a successful woman should dress are a growth industry, with fellow women policing each other. If you look closely, under the policing is a desperate move to try and conform. There is desperation to show how female dressing is close enough to male dressing- a plea of, ”Please allow us to stay in the workplace’’. Which is why we distance ourselves from ‘slay queens’ and other women who choose to wear clothes that make men uncomfortable in order ensure our continued survival in the male dominated workplace. And while this sort of pragmatism is perhaps understandable on why it happens, as proponents of feminist workspaces, we should constantly work to dismantle these rules that were arbitrarily created by and modeled on the (white) heterosexual male. We should keep railing against rules that are preserved by Kenyan society and followed religiously because that’s the way ‘decent professionals’ should dress despite the harm these rules cause women.
These policies have proven to interrupt women’s productive time in the workplace. They send messages to men that how women look is more important than what we actually do in the workplace; and that women are responsible for the actions of men. They perpetuate bogus economic logic that falsely links the action of covering an extra two inches of thigh or breast and labor production. In the case of ‘hyper sexualization’- they perpetuate a myth that women in addition to selling widgets are also part of the sale.
So what’s good?
Generally, a good workplace dress code should not discriminate, or penalize female employees. Some sensible guidelines /questions which borrow from this Dress Code Policy could include:
- Does it undermine dignity of employees?
- Does it allow for employee agency (can women choose to wear clothes that cover them up more/ less?)
- Does it impose a higher burden on women in the workplace?
- Does it put women at risk and/ or does it increase their vulnerability?
- Does it hinder women’s ability to participate in the workforce by e,g, restricting movement?
- Does it impose higher burden on women than on men to be in the workplace?
We should use every opportunity to challenge these assumptions that continue to shame women for existing in the workplace.
About Mendi Njonjo
Mendi is Hivos East Africa’s Regional Director. As a feminist, she’s passionate about contributing to an inclusive, just and fair world where women can contribute socially, economically and politically without stigma and discrimination.