Bengaluru teachers: Sorry not Sari

City Education

Bengaluru teachers do not want stringent dress codes anymore, but Karnataka education minister B. C. Nagesh says the sari garners respect.

Bengaluru: On a hot May afternoon, *Shumona Chatterjee arrived in Bengaluru—although she missed Kolkata, she was excited to embark on her teaching journey in the bustling metropolis. Over the next month, she diligently planned her ‘Gender studies’ course material. But when she walked into college on a sticky June day, Shumona felt terribly uncomfortable in her new uniform—the sari. And her female colleagues made it their mission to rain hell on her clothing choices. 

“It is inappropriate and distracts students. Wear a blazer, will you?” said one female colleague.

Shumona was embarrassed to see the male colleagues listen to what should have been a quiet insult, if not a conversation at all.

“They said my tummy was showing  because I did not pin my sari. These were the women boasting about their liberal mentality, but they seldom practice it. This is what teachers go through in the city,” said Shumona.

Most educational institutions in Bengaluru have a uniform for students, and these uniforms vary according to the   grade the student studies in. While teachers do not have a uniform, they do have a dress code—these may be open instructions or unsaid precedents. 

 “The dress code for teachers in my college is sari. But there is no rule telling us how to wear it. They told me I pin my sari in an inappropriate way—they said the  Georgette called for unwanted attention. It boils down to ugly insecurities fueled by patriarchy,” *Maria, a teacher said.

But senior teachers and department heads say that teachers garner respect based on the clothes they wear.

*Shalini is a Head of Department (HOD) at a private college in Bengaluru. “I think saris should be compulsory. For the simple reason that it garners respect. Sometimes students misbehave—they make videos. If we wear sari, then they give respect,” she said.

Principals say that there should be a dress code for teachers. Over the course of 40 years, *Meena has handled the roles of teacher, headmistress and principal of various schools and colleges in Bengaluru. “I think sari is a very good dress code. If not sari, they should wear salwar, with a dupatta pinned at both shoulders. It should not keep falling off. I brought such rules where I worked,” she said.

She added that there are some loopholes even within the dress codes. “I felt the leggings that teachers wore below their kurtis snuggly fit  the thighs and bottoms. And just like the Mariana trench, which is the deepest ocean trench in the world, teachers’ blouses have very deep backs—all this is very distracting for boys and girls,” she said.

But teachers say there is no end to the dress code policing. “Sometimes if I wear a bright red  color sari , male colleagues ask me, ‘Oh madam, what happened, anniversary today?’ What can I even tell them?” Shalini said.

In July 2021, the Ministry of Education released the Unified District Information System for Education Plus (UDISE+) 2019 – 2020. The report stated that female teachers outnumber male teachers in India, at 49.2 lakh and 47.7 lakh respectively.

Male teachers say that female teachers need to dress decently. “If teachers wear salwars, they look like students. They must wear saris—it is good to have a dress code for women faculty. Even we need to wear formals,” said Chetan, a teacher at a private college in Bengaluru.

But male students say that a female teacher is free to wear what she wants. Gautam, a student, said he has been witness to the harsh realities of a patriarchal Indian society. “I have grown up seeing my mother being constantly criticized by relatives for her choice of dresses. They say, ‘You are from an Indian culture. You cannot go against our practices like this’. She brushes it off with a smile, but there is hurt in her eyes,” he said.

He added that teachers should also be free to wear what makes them feel comfortable. “I never got distracted. Of course, if someone is attractive,w     e do notice it. But how is it her fault? It is my job to focus on learning,” he said.

Parents say that it is their job to raise sons who respect women’s  choices. “I do no     t see why my son’s teacher cannot wear jeans as long as she is comfortable. He goes there to study, not to judge a woman on her clothing. He knows it is none of his business,” said Lakshmi, whose son is a      grade eight      student at a private school in Bengaluru.

Sociologist R. Mir said that the dress code for female teachers stems from a civilizational value of respect attached to the sari. “Teachers are always seen as ‘role models’—they never democratically decided to adopt sari as uniform. Who did? The men did. And over time, women accepted this blindly. We call this false consciousness—this is when a repressed section actually starts to agree to norms that prevent them from leading an equal and fulfilled life. This has been seen in colonial times and during racial discrimination as well. Only a handful will get up and voice their anger,” he said.

He added that education is about liberalism. “We need to question these mindsets and look at education through new lenses,” he said.

Legislators say educational institutions need dress codes for female teachers.

B. C. Nagesh, Minister of Primary and  Secondary Education in Karnataka, said that a teacher’s attire must create respect among students. “See, it is the relation between a guru (teacher) and a shishya (student). Sari is a good dress because it covers almost the whole body. Why do teachers want western dresses? Sari makes them look like they are from our country,” he said.

On April 4, he had said that teachers wearing hijab cannot take part in the Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) and Pre-University Course (PUC) exam duties.

Speaking about the issue, he said, “If they wear burqa, they are seen for their religion and not their knowledge. Many can come without the hijab. It is not like they are going in front of the public,” he said.

Shumona still works at the same college, but said she is unhappy with how things are. “Every day, I wear that sari, and walk into class to teach students gender studies—I cannot help but question myself and my experiences when I teach them about patriarchy and equal rights.”