CREATIVE SPACE #2 of 2022 (uploaded January 19th 2022)
CREATIVE SPACE is an award-winning series spotlighting local (Antiguan and Barbudan/Caribbean) art and culture. As a brand, it dates back to 2009, published exclusively in LIAT’s inflight magazine. It was revamped in 2018 as a blog series and syndicated as of 2019 on Antiguanice.com. Its publishing partner, as of 2020, is the Daily Observer newspaper. It has its first print run in the paper every other Wednesday, with the online extended edition with EXTRAS running here on the blog and full interviews and extras on AntiguanWriter on YouTube. In 2021, the two–part CREATIVE SPACE mini-series on marine culture placed third in the OECS clean oceans journalists challenge. CREATIVE SPACE is created, owned, and written by Joanne C. Hillhouse – Antiguan-Barbudan/Caribbean author, journalist, producer, and freelance writer, editor, and trainer.
Here’s a link to the issue as it appeared in the Daily Observer newspaper on January 19th 2022:
Usually I would say, Below is the extended online edition (not a duplicate of the edition with publishing partner Observer Media) with EXTRAS. But there are unfortunately some formatting issues – it happens – so I’m repeating the article below as it was intended to run and anything pertinent that would have been in the extended online edition, along with any extras, will be in EXTRAS.
CREATIVE SPACE #2 OF 2022 – THE CII™ OF PUBLIC SECTOR DRESS CODES
My routine driver’s license renewal took three trips this year. On my first trip, I was wearing what I’m going to call tropical business casual: palazzo style pants and a light, scoop neck, “arm-sleeve” blouse – the latter prompting security to deny me entry. When I finally got my license, I was wearing super casual jeans and t-shirt.
The CII™ of public sector dress codes is not an Antigua-unique problem. It is all up and down the former British West Indies. But some have begun the deprogramming. The new Chief Secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly has removed, per the Trinidad Express, the “colonial requirement for citizens to be dressed in a certain way to access services” and ordered the removal of “those clumsily written signs about no shorts, no sleeveless and no slippers.” One letter writer, outlining the harassment this policy causes to women and lower income women in particular, said, “The newly minted Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Chief Secretary has demonstrated that this little irritant in the system can be changed by the ‘stroke of a pen’ without any negative consequences to the way business is conducted.” Several praised the move, one op-ed noting that 60 years out from colonial rule it was long overdue.
Lawyer Beverly George, whose perspective I sought, even said, “(This) practice does not exist in the UK; it ceased decades ago. Seems we are more British than the British.”
Beyond culture and personal style, clothing should be practical (i.e. suited to the weather and climate in which it is being worn, and the circumstance – i.e. church, beach, office; day, night etc.). Antigua’s January temperatures have been 22° to 28° Celsius (roughly 72 to 83 Fahrenheit), on the chilly side at night. There are women in Antigua today-today with sweaters and shawls in their cars for running in to public institutions. A Trinidad letter writer, turned away in her cap-sleeved dress, found an enterprising business that rented sweaters, shawls, and closed-up shoes across from public institutions. Locally, one person, “went in wrapped in the floor rug from her car and that was deemed okay.”
Just this week, a woman was observed rooting around her car for something to cover herself after she was prevented from handing over her vehicle licensing papers, outside, while showing her bare arms. Meanwhile, on my third and final trip to the Transport Board, I observed six men in knee-length shorts, five of those with slides/sandals, socks optional, and one exposing his boxer shorts; the others were in jeans and sweats. The women (with the exception of one in some kind of hair-cap and me in my t-shirt) were all business casual colonial-Caribbean-edition (no arm-sleeves). Most men don’t see a problem with these public institution dress codes, or even notice them, because they are largely unaffected. I’m not saying men have never been turned away; I saw a man in calf-length capris run afoul of the “no shorts” rule at the Passport office once. But the only consistency here is misogyny and arbitrariness. When I shared my Transport Board picture, someone said, “I went up with a sundress on with the same type of sleeve as your top but my sundress was down to below my knee and I was let in and nobody spoke to me about covering myself up!!”
The point, these public institution dress codes are Colonial, Impractical, and Inconsistent (CII™); and seemingly without legal basis. “To the best of my knowledge, no legislation exists that mandates women must not enter sleeveless into government buildings,” George said. “It is actually a policy held over from the colonial period.” These and other draconian policies, she said, needed to be overturned.
Tobago just did it. The policy was suspended in Jamaica in 2018 – though, per one commenter, may still be practiced. The closest we’ve come in Antigua seems to be 2019 when APUA sided with a customer, turned away by security for wearing jeans and a tank top. They advised security, per a Daily Observer article, to “follow stipulations outlined by APUA and no other.”
It’s time though to dash-way the whole CII™ of public institutions’ dress code and the culture of policing women’s bodies.
If you are from Antigua and Barbuda, please note that you need to walk with your passport (or if you don’t have a passport, your birth certificate and two government issued IDs) in order to renew your driver’s license. It is my opinion that this has not been sufficiently and consistently advertised; nor has there been a clear official (and public) explanation – that I have found – as to why, since this has not been standard in my decades of renewing my driver’s license. I know I’m not the only person unaware of this as I saw several people get stumped by this during one of my trips to the Transport Board. The Transport Board is not conveniently located and it sucks to be turned away over something like this (in addition to clothing protocols we need to push back against). So, consider this a PSA.
My previous take on the dress code was blogged as The Right to Bare Arms: a Reflection on Antiquated Attitudes and the Female Body (in the Caribbean). There is slight overlap but it is a much more informal and tonally different take. I invite you to read that as well if you haven’t already.
Some social media voices on the issue from around the Caribbean:
“It is cursed in Jamaica too, we need to get rid of these archaic practices bourne from our colonial history.”
“Not only in Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas too. Lone backwards ridiculousness. They won’t let you in government offices if you have on something sleeveless, if your skirt is a fraction above knee length, or if you have open toe shoes. Open toe shoes for crying out loud! Just because it’s a rule/law doesn’t make it right.”
“yup same here in Dominica”
As one person mentioned “this happens all over the hot Caribbean”.
The impact of colonialism on ongoing social practices and policy, implied or official, in public institutions extends to our schools. Per a recent social media discussion on this, the inconsistencies (per my CII™) include (in a predominantly Black region, mind), hair policies for both Black boys and girls that discourage Afrocentricity in favour of Eurocentricity, and the principals and teachers who (per one teacher) say negative things about Black children’s hair within their hearing – continuing the pattern of self-abnegation set in motion on the slavery plantations.
While this article focuses on the Transport Board, the shared experience of everyone – primarily women – who have run afoul of dress codes for showing what one person referred to as “shoulder meat” or other infractions (like ripped jeans) illustrate that this CII™ practice is pervasive throughout the system. Other institutions mentioned included the Medical Benefits Scheme, Deep Water Harbour (clearing goods), Ministry of Education (“it is actually in our dress code in the education act” said one teacher), the Passport Office (“luckily… I walk around with a change of clothes in my backpack”), the Court House (“when I went for my marriage certificate”), and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
If we look deep enough, it’s not just clothing, there is a lot of sexism embedded in our code and practices. This too seems to be part of our culture. (p.s. and a lot of nascent racism and colourism in these internet algorithms – e.g. google searches that turn up all-white options when you search for workplace attire, office wear, business casual etc.). As Jimmy Cliff once sang, still ‘Many Rivers to Cross’.
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