No sleeveless attire!

No sleeveless attire!

Is policy sexualising women’s bodies and promoting rape-blame culture?


Monday, November 09, 2015

Print this page Email A Friend!

THE high collars and covered arms and legs reminiscent of the Victorian era should have little place in modern society, yet the requirement for women to be covered is still a mainstay of many organisations, and increasingly schools, in Jamaica.

This was evidenced by a businesswoman who shared her experience on Facebook last week, after she was turned away from doing business at the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation because she was wearing a dress with capped sleeves.

It's an experience shared time and again by people who have had to visit agencies like the Registrar General's Department, where there is a thriving T-shirt-selling business outside for the hapless person who may not have been aware of the rule that they can't expose their armpits, shoulders, or even toes in some cases. And ludicrous as it is in the tropics, the rule has remained unchallenged for years.

For many these rules smack of Christian fundamentalism, and even a push to sexualise women's bodies. In evangelical Christendom, exposure means immodesty -- the excuse given during an evangelical youth meeting in Kingston recently for banning sleeveless clothing was that some men are tempted by armpits!

But from the experts there's a warning that this oversexualising is as bad as what obtains in rape culture, where some people believe women ask to be raped because of the clothes they wear.

"Let us not view modesty as an outdated kind of concept. Modesty is a virtue to aspire to. I am not making modesty the enemy," said Reverend Karl Johnson, chairman of the Jamaica Baptist Union. "However, I believe too many of our dress codes, whether wittingly or unwittingly, end up with this oversexualising mode, because if you check it out, I would be willing to hazard a guess that the majority of these target women."

He said even when we look at both genders across the gender spectrum, the reason and rationale might be different.

"So, for example, when you talk about sleeveless or they talk about the length of your skirt, oftentimes it is to say in some effect that you are showing too much of yourself and perhaps causing a distraction to men. But if you look at the abhorrence some of us have for the boys who wear their pants at their hips and show their underwear, they don't say it is because it is distracting to women and making them want the men."

He added: "Oftentimes the dress codes target women and they target women because we believe that women now are making themselves a greater temptation to men. If you are not careful, what you're doing is perpetuating that kind of thing, which is very evident in rape culture where they tell women they were inviting rape because they wore too short a dress or skirt."

Also of concern is the tropical climate, where Johnson said long skirts and long sleeves could be very uncomfortable for the wearer.

"In our setting, a tropical country, long sleeves and long skirts could be torturous. Go back to the rationale and ascertain what could make clothes inappropriate!" Johnson urged.

Dr Adwoa Onuora, lecturer at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, Mona Unit, agreed that dictating what people are allowed to wear or not wear in Government spaces that the public utilise is very similar to the ideas expressed and articulated in rape culture.

"In feminist theory, rape culture is a situation in which rape is pervasive and normalised due to societal attitudes about gender expectations and sexuality. So some of the behaviours commonly associated with that type of culture is victim blaming, sexual objectification (as seen here), and the denial of the pervasiveness of sexual violence. These forms of misogynistic or sexist kinds of framing cause more harm for victims," Dr Onuora said.

Dr Onuora added that this policing of women is a form of structural gender discrimination.

"The policies posted on these Government walls or doors are intended for all bodies in the public space, but if you look carefully at the items of clothing that people are being asked not to wear, they are items that are traditionally worn by women. Things like tank tops, baby tees, spaghetti straps, short shorts, dresses not above the knees -- those types of things are essentially targeting a particular segment of the population and because of that it could be particularly viewed as a systemic or institutionalised form of gender discrimination," she said.

Like Johnson, she asked about the logic behind such rules, while adding that the explanations usually given reinforce the ideas embedded in rape culture.

"The types of clothing that are prohibited are things that girls and women wear, so essentially we're saying cover up to avoid distracting males or making male workers or male patrons uncomfortable," she said.

"The reality is it targets women and it is unjust and unfair. Any policy or law or rule that targets one particular group and any policy or law that has gender implications that disproportionally affects one sex over the other is essentially an inequitable policy that reinforces a particular gender stereotype and has consequences," Dr Onuora said.

"It also has class implications because when we think of the type of clothing that members of the working class wear or are able to afford, more often than not these people don't wear suits and ties and jackets, so those policies are rooted in sexism and classism at the same time. They are unfair and that's putting it mildly.

"What we're doing is reinforcing a very colonial, bourgeois standard of deportment which Rastas fire bun and we should move from that tradition because really the suit and tie business, long skirt wearing standards of deportment, are very much rooted in patriarchy and in the colonial framing of persons, which is also rooted in the slave masters' religion that we've imported and held to for so many centuries."

She also called on the society to aim to move away from the idea of slut shaming.

"Embedded in these notions of respectability, morality and modesty is the idea that anything but what we know as traditional dress is slutty, and if you dress slutty it makes you more vulnerable to being victimised and that is blaming women for any kinds of unacceptable, inappropriate approaches or advances, and that's just problematic in so many ways."

Now you can read the Jamaica Observer ePaper anytime, anywhere. The Jamaica Observer ePaper is available to you at home or at work, and is the same edition as the printed copy available at




1. We welcome reader comments on the top stories of the day. Some comments may be republished on the website or in the newspaper � email addresses will not be published.

2. Please understand that comments are moderated and it is not always possible to publish all that have been submitted. We will, however, try to publish comments that are representative of all received.

3. We ask that comments are civil and free of libellous or hateful material. Also please stick to the topic under discussion.

4. Please do not write in block capitals since this makes your comment hard to read.

5. Please don't use the comments to advertise. However, our advertising department can be more than accommodating if emailed:

6. If readers wish to report offensive comments, suggest a correction or share a story then please email:

7. Lastly, read our Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy

comments powered by Disqus



Today's Cartoon

Click image to view full size editorial cartoon