Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 15 September 2019

Who really wears the trousers? We all do

Nurse Jessica Anderson is indicative of a world where prescriptive codes of femininity still exist

Protesters during the 'March for Women' in London in March. EPA
Protesters during the 'March for Women' in London in March. EPA

In 2013, women in Paris were finally permitted by the law to wear trousers in public. They had, needless to say, been wearing them in the French capital for quite some time but technically they could have been arrested for doing so (although there appears to be no evidence of that happening since its initial purpose of stopping female French revolutionaries from wearing them in the 18th century). The law required women to ask police for special permission to "dress as men" in Paris or risk custody.

Changing the law was low on the priority list, since it was deemed part of France’s "legal archaeology". It was then minister of women's rights Najat Vallaud-Belkacem who declared that updating the law was of "symbolic importance".

Yet despite being labelled archaic, prescriptive codes of femininity constricting women's dress choices endure. And once again, trousers are part of the protest.

Last weekend at the London marathon, Jessica Anderson completed the race while wearing a nurse’s uniform, in a time that was 22 seconds faster than the previous Guinness World Record for doing so. Her application for the record was rejected initially because she wore scrubs – a top and trousers – rather than what the Guinness World Records stipulated as a nurse’s uniform: a dress, pinafore and hat. Ms Anderson pointed out that female nurses typically wear scrubs not dresses and that no male nurse she had ever met had worn a dress.

Using the hashtag #WhatNursesWear, thousands of nurses took to Twitter to expose the absurdity of the idea that a nurse’s uniform must be a dress. Women shared pictures of themselves in their own scrubs. Male nurses followed suit.

There was an outcry on social media, declaring in no uncertain terms that the time had passed when only women were nurses and that to fulfil the role, they had to wear dresses.

Viewing a role like nursing as the preserve of women also shortchanges men

It was good to see the organisation take note so quickly and issue a fulsome apology, stating that its rules were "outdated, incorrect and reflected a stereotype we do not in any way wish to perpetuate". The record has now been awarded to Ms Anderson but the damage done by trotting out outdated views in the first instance was unnecessary and mind-boggling. It reminded me of the time Virgin Airlines took down another tired old trope about what cabin crew should look like. Earlier this year the company removed requirements for its stewardesses to wear make-up. It is astonishing we are still having this discussion in this day and age but it feels we might finally be moving away from viewing women in the workplace as eye candy rather than valued, productive employees.

Jessica Anderson competing in the London Marathon in her nurse’s uniform. Eric Tolentino / PA 
Jessica Anderson competing in the London Marathon in her nurse’s uniform. Eric Tolentino / PA 

Whether a woman can or can’t wear trousers at work might seem lower down the priority list than access to work, avoidance of poverty or safety from sexual violence and harassment. But it is symbolic of historic expectations that women are primarily there to please others first, rather than prioritising their own comfort and practicality.

Viewing a role like nursing as the reserve of women also shortchanges men. We are constantly battling the glass ceiling in numerous fields for women but we need to do the same for men. Too often, vocations like nursing and caring are seen as the domain of women primarily.

By wearing the right clothing for the job, women are not "dressing like men", as the original Parisian law might have described it. Nor are male nurses acting like women.

Sadly, this is not a historic problem but a very current one, as Ms Anderson’s case shows. In fact, according to a study carried out in March this year by the fashion retailer Bonmarche, more than 13 per cent of women in the UK had been told they weren’t allowed to wear trousers to work. In London, the figure rises to an astonishing 37 per cent. This requirement has nothing to do with the job but is a form of gender restriction for no purpose other than stereotyping and control.

Handing the world record to Ms Anderson might seem like a small symbolic victory but it is in fact part of a larger and important protest – one designed to free us from the stereotypes that affect both men and women.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World

Updated: May 9, 2019 06:11 PM