Watching hemlines rather than teaching skills

Everybody stand up! Stretch your arms! If you see any skin revealed from your belly, what you’re wearing is inappropriate. Bend over! If your back shows at all, what you’re wearing is inappropriate. You shouldn’t wear short skirts!

Don’t think these words were said by ISIS in Iraq, al-Qaida in Afghanistan or Boko Haram in Nigeria. These words were said by a well-educated instructor at a secular public university in a so-called liberal, first-world country. These words were meant to awaken teacher candidates and let them know they shouldn’t take their bodies to their classrooms.

If you travel to my country, Iran, before you get off the plane and inhale some fresh Iranian air, something slams in your face. A member of the revolutionary guard gets on the plane and passes out headscarves to women who had not yet covered their hair. She does this with a big smile if you do not look Iranian.

The Iranian Guardian Council chair last year declared the new government ought to take the women’s dress code more seriously. This senior cleric stated it would be easier for the government to control its female employees, who get paid out of the public budget, than to control women more generally. He also told university faculty they should consider dress in course evaluations and grades for female students.

I was reminded of this on my first day serving as a teacher candidate supervisor in a Southern state, attending one of our teacher candidates’ orientations. The candidates, who will spend a good part of the next two years in schools participating in field experiences, were bombarded by instructions mostly having to do with disciplinary issues, seductively polished as “professionalism.”

A good part of this professionalism was about disciplining bodies through dress code; and of course, the body that needs to be more controlled is the woman’s body. Interestingly, as a supervisor, one of the criteria I am supposed to consider in my evaluation of field experience students is if they have been able to discipline their bodies by dressing “appropriately.”

Women represent the overwhelming majority of teachers in U.S. schools. Despite the feminization of the teaching profession, the female body in a school environment is still a matter of “objectification.’’ Female teachers’ bodies matter before the quality of their teaching, and their clothing seems to be more important than their teaching skills.

If you’ve lived long enough, you may remember when police measured women’s swimming suits on the beach to make sure there was not an excessive amount of body appearing. This may sound ridiculous now, but such hem-measuring is very similar to what we practice nowadays in our teacher education programs.

Program coordinators, senior faculty and teacher supervisors I have talked to agree on a couple points. They had not thought about the dress code policy as a gender issue. They always assumed it was about being professional.

As long as women are objectified as sexual bodies to be controlled, rather than as intellectuals, it is no wonder why Georgia is ranked the 41st best state for women to live in, and why the U.S. is not one of the 71 countries in the world that has had a female president or prime minister. In fact, the United States ranks 97th for number of women in national government; women comprise only 20 percent of Congress.

Colleges of education are places where many women are educated across Georgia and the country as a whole. Teacher educators can decide to continue practices, such as strict “dress codes,” that perpetuate ideas of sexism and the control of women, or they can consider those practices within a global context of oppression against women.

Doing the latter could open up new possibilities for the empowerment of women in Georgia.