Dress code laws infringe upon personal freedoms

Ugandan parliament is currently debating a bill that would prohibit women from wearing miniskirts in public, according to a Los Angeles Times article published Monday.

Though it might seem antiquated for those with Western ideals, such laws are common in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, in which women must be covered from head to toe in public.

But even though democratically elected politicans have earned the right to create laws, Uganda’s proposed miniskirt ban not only imposes upon freedom of personal expression but calls into question the values and ethics behind dress code policies worldwide.

Under the guise of limiting indecent exposure, the proposed law targets women and limits freedom of expression. Uganda’s Minister of Ethics and Integrity, James Nsaba Buturo, equated miniskirts with nudity in an interview with the BBC. He used this exaggeration to hold scantily-clad women responsible for distracting drivers and “enticing” rape.

Instead of addressing the issue of sexual crime in Uganda, Buturo plans to ban thigh-bearing skirts because he feels they “provoke” these crimes. This flawed logic exemplifies the rape culture that blames victims while simultaneously pardoning their attackers.

Citizens of the United States are lucky enough to not have to live under national laws dictating skirt length. However, local dress codes, especially in schools, can still infringe upon First Amendment rights. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and non-verbal expression, yet certain institutions use dress codes to limit this right.

By forcing students to wear similar clothes, schools constrict creative expression and promote homogeneity. In addition, dress codes impose a standard of decency on students that only reflects the policymakers’ perspective. They force a standardized version of acceptable dress that does not take student opinion into account. Similarly, they neglect to consider the influence the fashion industry has on the availability of certain clothing and any cultural biases against donning merely “appropriate” attire.

Aside from the basic laws related to indecent public exposure, safety (such as closed-toed shoes being required at the gym) and the media’s censorship of nudity, federal and state law does not dictate clothing choices. Consequently, schools should also not limit students’ fashion choices by imposing strict clothing guidelines. Most institutionally sanctioned dress codes are instated to prohibit offensive or lewd forms of dress.  But, as with Uganda, the schools generally have more pressing matters to attend to.

For example, a school might ban certain colored clothing because it is emblematic of a local gang. This policy reflects only a topical solution to the underlying problem of gang violence. Instead of restricting liberties, the real issue of gang violence could be addressed through reform programs.

Fashion is a form of personal visual communication that allows people to express themselves non-verbally. This liberty of expression should be considered a basic human right.

According to the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

National precedent is even more definitive. In 1969, the Des Moines Independent School Distict attempted to prohibit students from wearing black arm bands in protest of the Vietnam War. School officials justified their actions by claiming these arm bands were a form of negative propaganda.       The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students, upholding their fashion choice as a form of self-expression and peaceful protest under the First Amendment. In this instance, fashion spoke louder than words.

Though dress codes themselves are not wrong, the intention behind them should be evaluated. If, in the case of Uganda, the policy stems from a misguided attempt to address sexual assault, the policy should not be taken seriously.

Fashion is not a remedy for larger issues such as gang violence or sexual assault crimes. Instead of regulating clothing choices, energy should be put toward fixing the underlying problem.   Clothing choice, after all, is a powerful and non-intrusive means of verbal expression — one which should be universally guaranteed and protected.


Veronica An is an undeclared freshman.