3 years

dress code

Talibanesque Code

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A Ramakrishna Mission school in West Bengal and its outrageous attitude towards its lady teachers

A Ramakrishna Mission school in West Bengal and its outrageous attitude towards its lady teachers

A Ramakrishna Mission school in West Bengal and its outrageous attitude towards its lady teachers

Sharisha is not in Afghanistan’s Helmand province where the Taliban dictate a strict dress code for women. Just 18 km south of Kolkata, the authorities of a school and local residents are similarly obsessed with keeping lady teachers ‘pure’. The school’s dress code, which orders teachers to don only white saris, is a throwback to the dark days of pre-Renaissance Bengal, when similar diktats used to be imposed on widows. The hapless teachers, dressed as widows, had meekly accepted the atrocious code for decades—until last year-end, when a small group started questioning the desirability of a dress code at the Ramakrishna Mission-run Sharisha Sharada Bidyamandir.

“This ridiculous dress code had also spawned a culture of obsession with teachers’ attire, hairstyle, accessories and even gait,” says Monideepa Sahu, one of the six teachers who’ve defied the dress code and have been victimised, “Every month, one staff meeting would be dedicated to analysing what every teacher has been wearing, her footwear, the size of her bindi, if she wears any makeup, lipstick or perfume, what sort of handbag and purse she carries, her attitude, the way she walks and carries herself, the whiteness of her sari and the like.” Monideepa and five more teachers decided to question this code, and wrote to the school secretary (an RK Mission monk). He replied that while there was no rule to enforce the dress code, it was the school’s tradition that they did so. They then wrote to the education department, which concurred that no government-aided school can impose any dress code on teachers.

The teachers then wrote to the school authorities stating their decision to wear coloured saris from 8 December 2008. “The next day, the school authorities issued letters to us stating that violation of the school’s dress code would invite penal action. The headmistress and other school staff, including some local people, even threatened to assault us,” recounts Sahu. What followed was not only nightmarish for the teachers, but made a complete mockery of the laws of the land. When the six teachers went to school the next day clad in non-white saris, they were gheraoed and attacked by a crowd of locals inside the school. “The locals had been clearly provoked by the school authorities,” says Sahu, “The police rescued us late that evening.” For the next four months, they couldn’t attend school. In March this year, the school secretary wrote to the West Bengal Commission for Women (WBCW), to whom the teachers had complained, assuring security to the six inside the school premises. Says Malini Bhattacharjee, chairperson WBCW, “I visited the school and was assured no harm would come to the teachers. But when they started going to school again, trouble started. Even then the secretary assured me of security to teachers.” But matters took a grave turn on 4 May, when the teachers were attacked in the school’s staff room by locals. The secretary pleaded helplessness, saying that he could not defy local sentiment on the issue of non-white saris. The six teachers had to be rescued by police at 12.30 pm.

Though the Women’s Commission and education department have not taken kindly to the school’s Talibanesque tactics, the school authorities continue to hold out. The six haven’t been able to go to school since May and their salaries have been withheld. Strangely, this is the only RK Mission school where such a dress code exists. In fact, no such code is in force in a boys’ school run by the Mission in the same compound.

The Mission has assured an investigation into the incident, but such a bland assurance hasn’t calmed the furore, and women’s and human rights groups are planning to launch a series of agitations. The school’s code, by the way, amounts to disrespecting Swami Vivekananda’s memory, who founded the Ramakrishna Mission and was an ardent advocate of women’s empowerment and modernisation of Hindu society.