The Student Assembly, a forum of high school learners, writes that school policy texts concerning uniforms are often written in ways that promote unfair discrimination. File Picture: Simone Kley
The Student Assembly, a forum of high school learners, writes that school policy texts concerning uniforms are often written in ways that promote unfair discrimination. File Picture: Simone Kley

School uniform policies deeply political and undemocratic

By Opinion Time of article published Oct 20, 2021

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by The Student Assembly

What we wear matters. School uniforms are cultural products, and they are deeply political.

School policy texts concerning uniforms are often written in ways that promote unfair discrimination. Examples of this include the banning of headgear such as scarves (targeting Muslim girls) or the banning of particular hairstyles, which may be part of the religious identity and expression of learners.

Aside from religious discrimination, it is now well known that school policies can and are used to target black students when particular hairstyles are marked as “untidy” or “inappropriate”.

Policy texts also tend to define uniform codes for boys and girls that are based on traditional gender binaries. For example, in many schools, earrings are considered appropriate for girls but not boys, whereas the traditional grey school pants are considered appropriate for boys and not girls.

These kinds of rules make no place for learners who do not identify with traditional gender norms. They also project very patriarchal and archaic visions of society. Some female learners also share being told by teachers that wearing pants accentuates their curves and is a “distraction” for male learners.

Uniforms also tend to be fairly impractical. Many female students say they have to suffer in skirts and pantihose when the weather is cold or find it difficult to participate in sporting activities during break-time because their uniforms are not suited for such activity.

Aside from the policies themselves, the ways in which they are constructed do not promote democracy. If schools are places that are meant to contribute to social cohesion and to educate learners by offering them opportunities to participate in democratic decision-making, then they are failing dismally in this regard.

First, codes of conduct are frequently presented to learners to accept but not to offer their input. Second, policies tend to focus on policing student behaviour and contain little in terms of holding other members of the school community accountable.

The risks of constructing school policies in this way mean that it is inevitable that policies that offend, that are unfair, and that exclude groups of students will be approved and used to organise school life.

The ways in which policies are enforced must also be addressed. A school may well have a written policy that appears to be fair, but when it is implemented in different ways for different learners, it has equally damaging effects.

This happens when teachers seem to “notice” the misdemeanours of some learners more frequently than others or when the uniform policy is vague and open to biased interpretation.

Learners should not accept oppression in any form that it manifests in schools. While it may be reasonable for schools to use uniforms as a means to promote school unity, it is important to examine how this is done (democratically or dictatorially), to consider the costs (and consequences), and to be pro-actively anti-oppressive.

School uniform policies need to be co-constructed with learners, and although such democratic input is currently hampered by power imbalances on SGBs, schools can democratise this process by making decisions about uniforms and codes of conduct, a school-wide process.

Uniform policies can be designed to respect religious and cultural differences, rather than force students to emulate the school “ethos”. They can avoid archaic and sexist tropes about a girl’s place in society by refusing to adopt double standards in uniform policy, by adopting gender-neutral uniforms and by rejecting practices of ritualised girling.

Similarly, uniforms need not exclude learners or become a site of class comparison if they are affordable. In the context of the majority of South African schools, this may mean rejecting attempts to emulate and project a colonial identity with expensive blazers, pantihose and the like, opting instead for clothing that is fit for purpose and readily available.

Much has already been said about “hair” in our local context – the issue of course, is not hair but the politics of hair, which is always deeply personal and which is shot through with race and gender conflict. Schools that police “hair” are actually reproducing and policing racialised and gendered bodies.

Uniform policies matter to learners, not because of a matter of style or taste, but because uniforms are instruments of social control and a source of subtle yet deeply felt violence.

* The Student Assembly is a forum of high school learners concerned with justice in schools and include learners from:

Zeekoevlei High School, Fairmount Secondary School, Lotus Secondary School, Lavender Hill High School, Heathfield High School, Wittebome High School, and Sibelius High School.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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