Editorial | Godfrey Stewart, burqas and chastity belts
Things, it seems, have settled at Godfrey Stewart High School in Westmoreland. With the parents having acquiesced, the school’s principal, Emily Lawrence-Ricketts, and her teachers, won’t have to be at the gates, tape measure in hand, checking the length of the girls’ uniforms or the circumference of the boys’ trousers.
Perhaps the school authorities have shelved any idea they might have entertained – as culturally irrelevant as that would have been – of making burqas – and chastity belts, probably – part of the school’s dress code. And boys, perhaps, might have been required to wear Godfrey Stewart’s versions of the jubba (a long loose outer garment with wide sleeves, worn by Muslim men and women, mostly in India) and kurta pyjamas (kurta: long ankle-length shirt worn over pyjamas – a traditional Indian men’s dress).
Although, in the case of the latter, Principal Lawrence-Ricketts would have had to be vigilant. In some designs, the legs of the pyjama are tapered, becoming close-fitting after the calves and below. Which would probably mean that Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, wouldn’t be readily welcomed as either student or guest at Godfrey Stewart. He might be a bad influence on the boys, with respect to dressing.
These allusions are, of course, ridiculous. But so were the demands that caused the recent contretemps at Godfrey Stewart. Or more to the point, Mrs Lawrence-Ricketts, and whoever else was involved in framing the dress code, contrived an illogic for the mischief they wished to attack.
According to the new rules, a girl’s uniform frock can’t be shorter than five inches above her ankle, which would make a modern conservative nun’s habit seem scandalous. The legs of a boy’s trousers must be no less than 16 inches in diameter. The specifications didn’t expressly mention bell bottoms.
When students turned up at the start of the new school year, hundreds had the gates closed in their faces, although Mrs Lawrence-Ricketts insists that they weren’t locked out. The video images posted to social media, the photographs published by this newspaper and the raging complaints by parents and students, based on the principal’s arguments, badly misrepresented the facts. Parents and students, in a fevered state, perhaps contrived a mirage of a padlocked gate.
In any event, Mrs Lawrence-Ricketts insisted, parents had long been warned, mostly by WhatsApp apparently, of the new dress code. All parents would naturally be in the WhatsApp group and ensure that they have “service” to follow the posts. It is not clear how the claim by some parents that they acquired the now too-short frocks directly from the school was resolved. And that, at this stage, doesn’t matter too much.
What is more important now is to track whether the requirement that girls be ensconced in hot, encumbering frocks, and that boys don flapping trousers, prove worthy of the challenge against which they have been employed. Which Principal Lawrence-Ricketts says is to deter sexual predators.
“...We have a number of predators who molest the young girls in taxis and buses,” she explained. “What we are trying to do is use the uniform as a deterrent.”
Short uniforms – by which she means skirts that were already significantly below the knees – invited unwanted touching and harassment of female students in buses and taxis. “There has been a surge in molestation cases at the institution because of public transportation,” she said.
So, the problem, it seems, is not really “short” frocks, but the predation of the men school girls encounter on public transportation. Mrs Lawrence-Ricketts, and her school’s solution, is about transferring blame for, and solution to, sexual predation to the victims – an attitude that these girls will likely encounter for the rest of their lives.
THE REAL SOLUTION
Most recent studies of sexual prevalence in Jamaica point to early initiation by our boys and girls – a mean age of 11 for the former and 15 by the latter. Often, sexual initiation is forced upon them, and very often, especially in the case of girls, by someone close to the family, or an individual on whom they rely on for either economic or social support. Moreover, four in 10 women claim coercion in their first sexual encounter, when most were still underage.
Or, as one mid-2000s study on the risk of early sex among adolescents in Hanover, published in the Scientific World Journal, observed: “Early coitus for girls has been reported to be associated with sex in exchange for money to meet economic needs, exploitation by male relatives, sexual curiosity, seeking fun and pleasure, love and affection, pressure (from boys, peers and adult men), force and physical violence, desire to have a baby, and lack of parental monitoring.”
Indeed, of the 10,000 cases of child abuse reported in Jamaica in 2020, 20 per cent was sexual abuse.
The solution to this problem is not to tell children that their behaviour is really the prime, and that schoolgirls must wear long frocks. That removes the burden from where it must lay – with the predators and enablers, in and outside of families.
Godfrey Stewart High seeks an easy way that will achieve little – and most likely nothing. The real solution, as a first step, is to identify, charge, convict and punish the predators. More fundamentally, it is fixing our society so that girls can find greater protection in family and can engage in wholesome community and societal relationships. Now, that’s hard work – which involves appropriate government intervention and economic support, and the full engagement of communities that know what they stand for.