Is Uganda successful in its ban on indecent dressing?

It’s almost a year since the Ugandan government decided to clamp down on supposed indecency, especially among its working class and civil service. Looking at the 11-month period the ban has been in place, one can’t help but wonder if the government has been able to realise what it hoped the policy set out to achieve.

In July 2017, the government released a circular from the Ministry of Public Service that imposed a stricter dress code than the existing ones for public servants. And that same month, six civil servants—Tumusiime, Alex Ashaba, Robert Muhwezi, Johnson Ahabwe, Rodgers Kizito and Felix Barugahara—were suspended for reporting for duty in starched, long sleeve shirts, well ironed trousers, properly polished shoes without neckties.

The 2010 Uganda Public Service Standing Orders stipulates that officers are required to dress decently, in general accepted standards of the Uganda community. This order, however, does not highlight what is termed “decent”. It was to define that label that the ministry issued a ban on sleeveless, transparent and tight clothing for non-uniformed officers. In addition to this, women are required to appear in skirts or dresses below the knee, with a “smart” long sleeve or short sleeve blouse. The definition of a smart blouse would be any blouse that covers the cleavage, navel and back, which is not in any way transparent or without a sleeve. Woe betide the civil servant found at work with a flat shoe or coloured hair—be it natural or braids and a slightly long nail.

The Ugandan government says the strict dress code is intended to check rising cases of indecent clothing at the work place. Adah Muwanga, human resources director at the Public Service Ministry, said the new circular was needed because of complaints—especially about female public officers—from male counterparts, who say “body parts should be covered”.

Like the retired footballer, David Obua, most people have argued that the ban would kill the diversity and multiculturalism of freedom to dressing. Lindsey Kukunda, an artist and writer, has also argued that “if decency was contained in clothes, we would spot a rapist or a corrupt politician from miles away.”

It is widely accepted that we are addressed by how we dress, and often the image of an institutions is portrayed through its workers. But prescribing a fair code of dressing in an organisation is slightly more difficult than it seems. Firstly, consider the cost it will take for workers to abide by such rules in organizations with a wide range of workers. Also, people love to break rules.

But beyond the human tendency to be non-conformist, instances like the government compelling ladies to stop wearing flat to work have been argued to have long-term health implications. The side effects of constantly wearing heels are well documented: lower back pain, sore calves not to talk of foot pain and ankle sprains that ladies in the Ugandan public sector have to endure while giving up their comfort if they want to retain their jobs and take home a complete pay.

As for the ban on coloured hair, African hair is naturally coarse and afro, therefore most women feel the need to diversify. To beautify it, some ladies add hair extensions, others add colour to their hair, while some others have a naturally coloured hair besides black. The spice and colour of life that variety provides is one of the reasons Uganda’s ban on indecent dressing is faltering, although the government has still been pushing to enforce this laws. Moreover, the differences between non-uniformed government officials and others in the society does not automatically translate to decency in the society.