Earlier this week, Punjab’s teachers came across a new parameter on their annual confidential report form that evaluates their annual performance – pehnawa, or attire. How they dressed over 2016-’17 will be classified as “theek” (right), “bharkau” (provocative) or “itrajyog” (objectionable)” by principals, accorded marks and will have a bearing on their career advancement.

The Government Teachers’ Union of Punjab is appalled and plans to register protest with State Education Minister Aruna Chaudhary. Although the form is common for all teachers – male, female, primary school and secondary – the union’s leaders see this category as specifically targeting women. “The government had previously issued regulations for women teachers only,” said the Union’s General Secretary, Kuldip Singh Dodka. “The focus on women betrays a regressive mentality.”

Not the first time

Attempts to monitor teachers’ clothing have been made in the state earlier too. Dodka said that in 2013, the government had issued instructions restricting women’s choice of clothing “We forced the government to withdraw that letter,” he said. “It had said that children are affected if women teachers do not dress right.”

In May, the Directorate of Public Instruction under the state’s Department of School Education issued another letter, similar to the 2013 one. It sought to ban “jeans, tops and bright suits [or salwar-kameez]” for teachers. Following protests, the order was withdrawn. “Now, instead of separate instructions, it [the dress code] has been introduced in the report,” said Dodka. “Teachers can now lose points for this.”

Punjab's annual confidential report format for 2016-'17. Third point in the second table is on attire. (Credit: Kuldip Singh Dodka)

Across the country

But Punjab’s case is not a one-off. Other states too have tried to restrict the sartorial choices of teachers too, with varying degrees of success.

In 2010, Odisha managed to enforce uniforms for teachers in state-run schools, a move that invited mixed opinions.

KK Tripathi, who was with Utkal Primary Teachers’ Federation, the state union, in that year said the introduction of uniforms improved teachers’ attendance. Women primary-school teachers were told to get pink and black handloom saris and men, blue shirts and black trousers. Women teaching senior classes were asked to wear saris in a brownish-yellow. State emporiums were asked to stock sarees that met these sepcifications.

Tripathi said the uniforms allowed all school staff to immediately identify teachers, putting pressure on them stay through the class and not leave after signing attendance. “The community can immediately spot a teacher out of class or going late,” he said. “This supports Odisha’s weavers too.”

A 2012 set of instructions from the Odisha government on modifications to the uniform for teachers. Those were introduced in 2010.

But Sameet Panda, an education and health activist in Bhubhaneshwar, said the move was unpopular when it was introduced, had a limited impact, and was a way to assert authority over schools. The community [of a school] already knows who the teacher is,” he said. “Uniforms were introduced during a conflict between teachers and state authorities. A strict education secretary was cracking down on some teachers, There were protests but she [the secretary] prevailed.”

Strong opposition

Similar attempts at restricting what teachers can wear have been made in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh too, but were staunchly opposed.

N Narayana, a former member of Andhra Pradesh United Teachers’ Federation, said that in 2013, the state forbade jeans, t-shirts and flip-flops for teachers. “Andhra teachers do not follow [the dress-code],” he said. “This curtailed the teachers’ freedom even though there had been no complaints [about how teachers dress]. But most teachers, of their own volition do not wear these anyway.”

Teachers also “voluntarily took an oath” to not use phones in class, he said, something that the state had also directed.

Andhra Pradesh government's 2013 instructions on dressing and mobile-phone-use for teachers (Credit: N Narayana)

In February, the Karnataka government’s issued a circular suggesting uniforms for college teachers, which was instantly shot down, with the Government College Teachers’ Association threatening to go on strike. “There are general guidelines – teachers should be dressed decently, etc. but we [teachers] do not need to be taught any of this,” said H Prakash, the Association’s president. “There may have been some business interest involved in the decision. For teachers, discipline is priority and dressing right is an aspect of discipline.”

Prakash said that of the 412 government colleges in Karnataka, more than 390 are without principals.

Norbert Lobo, a Karnataka office-bearer of the All India Federation of University and College Teachers’ Organisations, believes the government had tried to introduce the dress code to control the functioning of colleges. “The teachers-in-charge have no authority [principals] so teachers sign-in and then leave the colleges,” he said. “The government must have thought uniforms would improve discipline. But colleges are meant to foster independent thinking. Even students should not have uniforms.”

Unwritten rules

However, not states have seen strong opposition to dress codes for teachers. In Madhya Pradesh, the government has repeatedly announced special aprons for teachers from this academic year, but the hasn’t yet implemented this.

However, if the move does come through, most teachers will not be averse to it, according to Harsh Kumar Maran of the state’s Shaskiya Prathmik evam Madhyamik Shikshak Sangh (an organisation of government school teachers). “It would have been nice, increased respect for us as they will have badges saying “rashtriya nirmata” or nation builders,” he said.

Even if they are not ordered by the state governments, dress-codes are often imposed by school authorities. Delhi’s Directorate of Education has not issued any code but an official said young teachers are often told not to wear “flimsy clothes or shorts” to class. “Their principals tell them this informally,” she said.

In private schools, such instructions are often codified. “Primary school teachers are allowed western-formal wear but senior ones are allowed only suits [salwar-kameez],” said a young teacher from a private school in North Delhi. “Men have to wear formal shirts, trousers and shoes. These are relaxed some days of the week for us but at about half the private schools in Delhi, saris are compulsory.”