Sorcha Beirne, a 16 year old at Fredericton High School (FHS), is the founder and coordinator of Fredericton Youth Feminists, and is also receiving this year’s YMCA Peace Medallion for her activism on feminist causes.
Beirne’s group, which includes students from FHS, Leo Hayes High School and École Sainte-Anne, have launched a video and petition to FHS, calling for the removal of the dress code and the enforcement of a sexual assault policy.
The petition to FHS begins:
Your high school contributes to rape culture. Rape culture is a culture where 1 in 3 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. It’s a culture where only 3% of rapists will see a day in prison. It’s a culture that cares more about protecting the identities of rapists than supporting rape victims. Dress codes lead to the sexualization of young women, the punishing of women for taking control of their own bodies and the blaming/shaming of women who don’t dress overly-modest. And after all that, your school has the audacity to not even have a sexual assault policy. Rather than enforce rape culture in your school, we ask that you discuss and discourage it.
Beirne says the ambiguity of the dress code encourages slut-shaming because it gives the teachers the power to force their personal preferences on female students.
Slut-shaming happens when a person insults a woman because she expresses her sexuality in a way that deviates from traditional or orthodox gender expectations. Some examples of circumstances where women are “slut-shamed” include: violating accepted dress codes, requesting access to birth control, and having premarital or casual sex.
Beirne explains why she believes the dress code is reflective of this practice: “The dress code says that we [the girls] can’t show our undergarments or our midriffs… Aside from that, the only other thing it says is that we have to dress modestly, and that is a problem, because ‘modesty’ can mean different things to different teachers.”
“Basically, this ambiguity allows the teachers to force their own ideas of ‘modesty’ on us even if our infraction isn’t in the dress code, and they can publicly humiliate you for it too.”
Beirne has attempted to address this issue with both the district and the school on multiple occasions, but she says that both of these parties have repeatedly ignored her concerns.
FHS student Arie Wood says that, because the dress code is applied this way, students can have a difficult time discerning what is appropriate to wear and what is not. “Some teachers will say that one outfit is okay and another teacher will say that it’s not. It’s confusing. I don’t think we should be forced to wear something based on a teacher’s personal preference.”
Mike Dollimore, who is the Coordinator of International Students at the Anglophone West School District, says that this ambiguity is a positive trait in school policy because it allows the Principal to work with the staff to create policies that are right for the school. “There are so many things to take into account, age being the biggest one, but all of the school’s policies must fall in line with district policy and vice versa.”
As of 2014, Anglophone West does not have a written dress code policy for the schools in the district.
“I think the dress code is sexist,” says Jerry Whitman, another student at the high school. “Especially because the school focuses on girls’ clothing and punishes them a lot more than they do the guys.”
Beirne elaborates on the teacher’s enforcement of the dress code. “The dress code is definitely enforced with the girls much more often than it is with the boys,” she says, “and even though the rules are supposed apply to everyone, they aren’t enforced that way. The guys are allowed to wear tight shirts to class that cling to their muscles, but the staff wanted to ban girls from wearing tights because they defined our legs too much and were a distraction. So, I feel like the dress code is set up to specifically sexualize young women.”
FHS student Nyomi Calhoun also notices a double standard in the dress code. “Our school had a themed dance called ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ last year, and the guys were allowed to wear short skirts for fun, but we [the girls] aren’t allowed to wear things like that to dances, because we would get in trouble for it and have.”
Natasha Cliche, a grade 10 student at FHS, says that the dress code’s ambiguity allows teachers to force gender binaries on the students. “One of my friends is gender fluid and they were wearing a crop top. They were told by the teacher that a crop top isn’t something their sex should wear. The teacher seriously said that.”
Because of district policy, the teaching staff at FHS is unable to respond for comment.
Nikita Hartt is an UNB Arts 3000 intern with the NB Media Co-op.