On The Freedom To (Un) dress

freedom to UndressIt is reported that a number of academic institutions (University of Ibadan, Unilag, French language village) have enacted a ‘dress code’ within their campuses in an effort to curb ‘indecent appearances’. Since this move was made public, there have been responses from all quarters. Some who are vehemently against this development are of the strong opinion that undergraduates should be allowed the freedom to dress or undress.

It is true that the right to choose lies with each individual. It is true that our undergraduates (especially the females) have a legitimate freedom to as much nudity as they choose. It is also true that it is these rights that the constitution seeks daily to protect. Nevertheless, to view our individual rights within a vacuum may speak of less than intelligence. For intricately entwined with the right to choose is the ‘right to consequences’.

For though I have a right to semi-nudity, the right to consequences is that fellow undergrads, lecturers and the school authorities may label me ‘insane’, shallow’, ‘indecent’, ‘virtueless’, ‘available’, ‘a whore’ etc. However, you may say, “Hey, these labels don’t correctly describe who I am”. Yes. What makes the ‘right to consequences’ possibly more serious than the right to freedom/choice is that none of us has control over the consequences of our choices.

The male undergrad that labels a girl as ‘sensual’ and ‘available’, may consider it part of the play when having led a girl to a secluded dark corner, she refuses him a kiss. I guess at that point it may also be late to preach to this guy the morals of rape. Therefore, it is good but not sufficient to say, “I have a right to choose semi-nudity”. It may be wiser to ask oneself; “though I have a right to choose how much of my body I expose but am I prepared for all possible unsavoury consequences that may follow.”

This issue of labels brings up an even much more fundamental idea called perception. Perception speaks of the way the human mind works; which is by categorising what it sees, hears, or feels. The mind is swamped, every second, with a mass of differing stimuli and signals. To aid understanding and comprehension the mind sorts this information into groups and labels each group. For example, when you hear ‘rattle’, what comes into your mind? Since individual success is largely dependent on human interactions, it may then be suicidal to live in total disregard to how others perceive you. Is this fair? Probably not. So why re-invent the mind? It is said that when in Rome, do as the Romans. Rome isn’t America. Nigeria is also much different from America (no matter how much of America that we import).

On another hand, some people tend to conduct themselves as though the freedom to choose is one person’s exclusive preserve. For every choice you make that affects me directly or indirectly, I too possess a ‘right of response’. Moderated by the law, by conscience or by one’s relationship with God, each of us has a ‘right of response’ in any given situation. If the president, PPRA and independent marketers choose to increase fuel prices, then they should expect that the people have a freedom to respond. In responding, a natural instinct we all have is the one of self-preservation.

When you exercise your right to choose semi-nudity, I do have a choice to protect myself against the sensual onslaught. Moreover, the options open to me are fewer as an undergrad than as the head of department or vice chancellor. As you choose to expose different parts of your body and also provide sensual details of your God-endowed curves, the HOD or VC in trying to protect himself and his constituency has options open to him and his office – so enacting a dress code may just be a survival strategy after all. Let’s not forget that the VC and HOD may rightly consider themselves Chief Security officer and Chief Custodian of Values and Heritage. The point is this: the next person also has a right to perceive ‘danger’ and will instinctively unleash any protective mechanism available to him.

By instituting this dress code, these academic institutions (University of Ibadan, Unilag, French language village) must have succumbed to a temptation that has ‘befallen’ many business organisations and professions for many decades now. And that is the temptation of culture building and preservation. Most successful organisations or institutions are built on certain derived cultures. The culture of an organisation refers to the unique configuration of norms, values, beliefs and ways of behaving that characterises the manner in which groups and individuals combine to get things done (Eldridge and Crombie, ‘74).

As these institutions subsist for many many years then these values transform into a heritage. Unilag, one of Nigeria’s first generation universities, arguably the foremost 21st century-inclined university, definitely has a heritage to preserve. I perceive that Prof. Ibidapo Obe and his team, through this dress code edict are concerned with sustaining the laudable and enviable performance, which Unilag has strove to build over decades.

Before this recent dress code was passed, at least three professions in Nigeria already have dress codes handed down to them – the Armed Forces, the legal and medical professions. In most universities (if not all), law students have very strict and conservative choice of acceptable clothing and colours. Perhaps the departments are trying to preserve a heritage. It is also instructive to note that many companies have Staff Handbooks that spell out (sometimes graphically) acceptable conduct, and dressing codes – complete with cloth colours, shoe and bag colours, lengths etc. perhaps these companies are attempting to grow a culture or preserve a heritage. All these efforts are because it has been found that culture building has a strong impact on institutional performance.

Finally, is the issue of performance … is there a link between mode of dressing and academic excellence? Is there a relationship between mode of dressing and leadership ability? Does moral decay lead in any way to academic decay? Can mode of dressing in any way be a result of moral decay? Evidence of moral decay is all over the place: increase in deaths from cult activities, increase in exam malpractices, porosity of graduates, clamour for exams/interviews for successful JAMB candidates, emergence of dress codes, disrespect of authority … I would like to submit ab initito that I am not aware of any studies/research that has been conducted on these questions. I would only highlight observations and raise pertinent questions.

One, there seems to be a general agreement that there are now graver dimensions of moral decay. This imported fashion of dressing, as close to semi-nudity as possible may be a manifestation of this decadence. But may be not. Secondly, can dressing close to nudity in any way lead to academic excellence? HAS any one observed that exposing one’s stomach, chest or thighs, leads not only to better assimilation but also to sterling performance in class?

Are the people, better known for partial exposure of their muscles (for the guys); are they the ones coming out with first class and second class upper? Are they the ones wining the prizes? When you were in the university, how were the first class and second uppers dressed? They may not have been so smartly dressed but did they expose parts of their bodies? Or maybe they lacked the intellectual or artistic depth to appreciate the virtues in semi-nudity? Of course, someone may remind us that academic excellence is not equal to success in life.

What about leadership ability? That ability that enables one to galvanise followership towards a vision. Are they any statistics to show that those trendy semi-dressed students are the ones being selected for leadership responsibilities? Faculties, departments, old students associations, and all manner of academic and social groups continually elect people into leadership positions. Which kinds of students do they elect? I would like to know if the semi-dressed girls are the ones being elected. It would really be instructive and enlightening to find out that it’s the guys showing off sexy curves that are been chosen.

Possibly these questions and observations will help us decode if dressing partly nude serves any noble cause. For then we all would go out of our way to counsel our children and younger ones to expose some (not all) of their beautiful bodies. For then parents will even go on the street to cry out against the dress code.