SAINT JOHN, NB June 21, 2015 /Troy Media/ – While Quebeckers debate the merits or indignity of prohibiting public servants, and women receiving public services, from veiling their faces, New Brunswickers have also been dealing with the issue of appropriate dress.
You won’t find the niqab or the hijab at the centre of this debate, though, for a number of reasons. There aren’t many Muslim women in New Brunswick who wear such outfits as expressions of their faith. Those who do tend to be middle class and university educated, making it difficult for critics to dismiss them as culturally oppressed. And there is also the province’s own cultural ethos to consider: the niqab is almost exclusively seen in New Brunswick’s urban areas, where a more “live and let live” attitude to differences tends to prevail.
Debate over dress codes growing
It isn’t the veil of faith that New Brunswickers have been arguing over, but the secular covering up imposed by school dress codes – and the debate has been growing in scope and intensity since November 2014.
That was the month when a couple of dozen students calling themselves Fredericton Youth Feminists staged a walkout at Fredericton High School to protest a dress code that they decried as vague, unfairly enforced, and fundamentally chauvinist. They offered an intelligent critique of the dress code, arguing that how female students are allowed to dress is less dangerous than how male students are allowed to react, and called for more comprehensive and specific policies against sexualization, sexual assault and the perpetuation of “rape culture.”
The school’s response was to hand out suspensions – a move that put a media spotlight on the issue and polarized public opinion.
In the end, reason won out: the Fredericton Youth Feminists and district officials started talking and officials have made a commitment to invite students to help draft a new district-wide policy on sexual assault. In March, teen organizer Sorcha Beirne was named one of 30 women under 30 to watch in Canada by Flare magazine . . . but that wasn’t the end of the story.
In mid May, 17-year-old Lauren Wiggins, a student at Harrison Trimble High School in Moncton, posted her concerns on Facebook after she was disciplined for wearing a dress that bared her shoulders, then suspended for protesting her punishment through a smart and measured letter to the school. Once again, perceptive students questioned whether policies were being applied equally to male and female students, and school officials succumbed to foot-in-mouth disease – this time, offering the additional excuse that dress codes must to be enforced to keep female students from creating a “sexual distraction.”
Less than two weeks later, La Fédération des jeunes francophones du Nouveau-Brunswick (Federation of Young New Brunswick Francophones) passed a motion seeking standardized school dress codes across the province. They expressed what many parents and students had also been saying: that the problem is not dress codes per se, but the imposition of standards in which students have no say and are applied predominantly to female students. Public servants seemed to be listening, and the debate might have ended there, if not for a few further developments.
An arbitrary abuse of power?
On May 27, a 10-year-old student in Hampton was reprimanded at school for wearing a loose t-shirt that lifted, briefly baring her midriff, when she was playing jump rope. In June, a St. Stephen mother went to the media with complaints that her daughter had been disciplined for wearing a dress that looked like . . . a dress. These incidents underlined the questions first raised by the students in Fredericton: is dress code enforcement universal policy, or arbitrary abuse of power – and who is sexualizing whom?
Last week, as schools across the province prepared to shut down for the summer vacation, you could almost hear the sigh of relief from school and district offices: the school year was ending before soaring temperatures could bring new confrontations over student apparel. For educators and administrators, the respite will be brief, though.
Across New Brunswick, crusading students and irate parents have put schools on notice that chauvinism will not be tolerated . . . and the public seems to be behind them.
Eric Marks is a former opinion page editor. He lives in Saint John.