Students strike out at universities as new campus dress codes imposed
Alexandria University Engineering faculty - Courtesy: Faris Wright, via wikimedia commons

Students on Egypt’s public university campuses are now subject to new dress codes that prohibit a range of fashion choices, from ripped jeans, baggy or tight fitting pants, “revealing” clothes that “that evoke the desires of male students” and galabeyas, to certain hairstyles that some administrators have called “disgusting” and judge to be at the root of issues like sexual harassment or improper university behavior. Students have struck out against the new regulations, with some saying it amounts to “moral guardianship.”  

The Higher Education and Scientific Research Ministry Spokesperson Adel Abdel Ghaffar told Mada Masr on Sunday that during a meeting ahead of the new academic year, the High Council for Universities instructed university administrations to bring “discipline” back to Egyptian campuses.

“Of course students are free to wear whatever they choose, but this freedom should be practiced responsibly. The clothes students wear at universities have to be appropriate for the place they come to learn,” Ghaffar said.

When asked about what standards define what an appropriate dress code looks like, Ghaffar asserted that “respect for the university campus” was a sufficient benchmark.

The education faculty at Monufiya University was the first to take concrete steps against what it considers inappropriate attire when its media office announced on Wednesday that dean of the faculty, Hanan Yashar, had decided to ban students wearing “ripped or faded pants from campus.” According to the statement, the faculty staff have welcomed the new rule.

Mada Masr reached out to Yoshar for a response. However, she was unavailable for comment at time of publishing. She told the privately owned Youm7 newspaper earlier in October that the faculty’s board had decided to ban ripped jeans and trendy haircuts, which she described as “disgusting,” and are also hoping to combat the trend of loose pants on campus. She told the newspaper that she had already given orders to campus security to prevent students wearing them from entering the school.

Head of Kafrelsheikh University, Abdel Razek al-Dessouky, has also taken up the fight against what he described as “inappropriate clothes.” In comments to the privately owned Al-Watan newspaper on Sunday he said that students wearing unsuitable outfits would not be permitted on university grounds, asserting that it is “a place to obtain knowledge and practice good morals.” However, he added that ripped jeans were not prevalent at Kafrelsheikh, which is in a rural, conservative area.

Mohamed Hussein, a master’s student at Alexandria University, told Mada Masr that university guards have recently started barring students wearing ripped jeans and shorts from the campus. They have also prevented students smoking cigarettes from the university grounds, he added.

“This is an attempt to project the failures of Egypt’s education system on the ethics of students,” he poses. “They want to tell us these don’t stem from mismanagement, or the lack of a proper research environment, but are related to the deteriorating morals of students. This is the discourse of the ruling regime, largely.”

The fact that students have begun commenting on what their classmates wear is just as alarming as the administration’s interference. This leads to the imposition of moral guardianship, and shows how empty academic life here is.

Another Alexandria University student, Hesham Ali, agrees. He believes that university want to transform students into a homogenous group “that can be easily controlled.”

He questioned the reasoning behind the changes to university dress codes, saying “You cannot wear ripped jeans on campus because we live in a religious, conservative society, but it’s okay to harass your female classmates, while university security watches and does nothing?”

Marwa Imam, who studies at Cairo University, is concerned as the restrictions are more heavily weighted against female students.

“Off-the-shoulder blouses and ripped jeans were subject of debate this year. The fact that students have begun commenting on what their classmates wear is just as alarming as the administration’s interference. This leads to the imposition of moral guardianship, and shows how empty academic life here is,” she asserts.

Dean of Alexandria University’s agriculture faculty, Tarek Sorour, has stated that he is specifically incensed by “clothes that expose parts of female students’ bodies.” He also expressed his dislike of religious garments like galabeyas and abayas.

In comments to the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper in September, Sorour said he was touring the campus when he saw a number of female students wearing ripped clothes that “completely violate the religious traditions and principles of the university.”

“I ordered security to follow these students and make them aware of the administration’s objections to this kind of revealing clothing,” he said. According to Al-Masry Al-Youm, he demanded that female students be prevented from from wearing revealing clothes “that evoke the desires of male students and invite them to harass [the women], as well as banning students who wear galabeyas.”

One Cairo University student, Mohamed Saeed, agrees that wearing ripped jeans on campus is inappropriate. “Education deserves a certain respect, and sanctity. Universities are not nightclubs,” he said. Saeed told Mada Masr that “there is no problem with being up-to-date, but we should not imitate everything we see.”

Imam, from Cairo University, is frustrated by students’ inability to object to the imposition of the new restrictions. “Students are no longer able to oppose anything on campus,” she said.

In March of this year Abdel Karim Zakareya, a member of Parliament’s Religious Affairs Committee, demanded the introduction of uniforms for university students. He said he aimed to propose a bill which would “aim to limit the inappropriate clothes that some students wear, like tight and ripped clothes that contravene the values and traditions of the Egyptian society.”

Zakareya has since denied these assertions in comments to Mada Masr, affirming that he has no intention of submitting a bill on student dress codes. He expressed his deep dissatisfaction with criticism leveled against him on social media by university students following the initial reports.

Higher Education and Scientific Research Minister Khaled Abdel Ghaffar confirmed to Al-Watan on Sunday that the ministry will not introduce a unified dress code for students, saying “this is not even an option.”

University dress codes have also extended to include target religious garments on campus, with some, like the niqab, sparking particular controversy. Most recently, several students from the arts faculty at Mansoura University submitted a formal complaint in September, accusing a professor of kicking them out of a classroom for wearing the niqab.

Gaber Nassar, former head of Cairo University, was widely criticized when he introduced a ban on the niqab on campus in 2015.

The debate around what constitutes “appropriate” university attire on Egypt’s campuses is far from new. In 2014 several universities moved to ban shorts and tight pants on campus, which has been enforced on a number of occasions.

In a  a policy paper published in 2015, the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) said that choosing one’s clothing is a personal right guaranteed by the law and Article 54 of the Constitution. The paper specifically criticized universities’ interference in designating what constitutes a proper dress code.

“The authority of university administrations in organizing campus issues is not absolute. It is limited to organizing them in a way that does not infringe upon personal rights and legal status of all beneficiaries,” AFTE wrote.

Professor at Cairo University and a member of March 9 Movement for the Independence of Universities Hany al-Husseiny believes that there has recently been an “ambiguous” move toward monitoring the ethics and personal activities of students, issues which he asserted should not concern administrators.

“This exposes officials who have failed to address the real challenges in Egypt’s education system, because they have nothing serious to offer in this regard,” he said. Instead, he told Mada Masr, these individuals “try and appease the authorities and conservative elements of society by speaking about the need to restore morality.”

Controls on student behavior at university sometimes go beyond dress codes. In early October, Youm7 reported that Tanta University referred two law students to a disciplinary committee for hugging on campus. The two individuals had been embracing to celebrate the announcement of an engagement.

Responding to the incident, Tanta University President Ibrahim Salem called for the return of police to university campuses.

“Police were feared before January 25. What I have now is weak guards hired by private security firms who are poorly paid and who have no authority. Students scare them and refuse to show their IDs at the gates,” he said.

Police presence was commonplace inside Egyptian universities during the rule of former President Hosni Mubarak, a practice which was widely criticized until a 2008 court ruling banned police from public universities. The ruling was only enforced after the January 25 revolution.

Having police on campus did little to prevent serious crimes, Husseiny said, recalling the death of a Cairo University student in 2010 during a campus fight.

“I don’t understand the university administration’s insistence on banning everything they don’t like,” the professor said. “Universities are like big societies, created as a means for for students to establish social networks and engage in activities and politics. They are not just a space in which students take classes and then leave, as demanded by administrators. We are endangering the role universities play in our society with this approach.”

Mai Shams El-Din 

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