Should Individual Choice Trump Institutional Rules?


Delhi Public School (Srinagar) has apparently disqualified a female teacher from teaching while wearing an Abaya. (Abaya is a loose garment worn by women usually in the Middle East that covers the body from head to the feet). This female teacher, it needs to be stated, has neither been barred from the school nor dismissed; she chose to leave than compromise her personal choice. The decision by DPS authorities elicited protests by students and sparked controversial debates on social media. The debates veer around choices of people, religious freedom and freedom of institutions to craft and then impose their rules, regulations including dress codes.Dress and the outfits people choose to wear are supremely personal choices. As long as there is no impropriety which hurts peoples’ sensibilities (like going around nude) and which is socially and culturally unacceptable, anybody can wear anything. This essentially pertains to freedom of choice guaranteed constitutionally in most liberal democracies.  Dresses and outfits also pertain to the personality of an individual and self expression. Person A chooses to wear a certain outfit to make a statement or express her beliefs or worldview. The female teacher in contention here then is perfectly entitled to choose to wear an abaya. Nobody can choose to impose a particular dress for her.
But this is not all. A society is comprised of institutions- religious, non religious, social, political and cultural. Each institution has its own set of rules and codes- behavioural, functional, ethical and moral. And institutions, by and large, while they aggregate people care not run according to the preferences of individuals. At times there is a certain code involved which implies or even enforces a certain required homogeneity on members of an institution. The armed forces and the police require its members to wear uniforms besides a certain behavioural and functional code.  So do hospitals and other institutions like schools. A soldier or a police person cannot walk into his /her army bunker or police beat in a beach shirt and hat. Nor can a school going pupil wear a dress of his/her choice whilst in school. The same applies to teachers and other staff members. If a school has a certain minimum requirements for its staff in terms of a dress code, staff has to adhere to these requirements.
Macro and micro institutions in society have their own rules and regulations which cannot and should not be defied by its members. If an individual has strong beliefs- religious, cultural, political- that go against the codes and rules of institutions of which they have chosen to be part of, the onus lies on the individual to either exit or remain in the institution. If the belief system is strong, and if this goes against an institutions coda, then there is no compulsion on the individual to remain with/ in the institution. She/ he has the choice to exit and move to places or institutions which correspond to his/her belief systems. This choice applies to the female teacher in contention.
Other members of society while they can opine on the issue should not impose their choices on institutions. Imposing amounts to vigilantism which is frowned upon both by religion as well as society. In terms of institutions, and their rules and regulations, these should be made clear to members or potential members at the time of hiring lest issues and controversies arise in the future as has happened in the DPS case. This is an institutional responsibility that is owed to the public. Institutions also operate in the wider framework of society which may have a preference for a certain value and belief system. If institutions like schools maintain strict standards that correspond to the major belief systems of a given society, it is well and good but ultimately the institutions’ choice not an obligation. As long as an institution is not at odds with society, as in propagating harmful values or themes that are in contradistinction to the values over which there is consensus in society, they are liberty to draft and impose a set of rules that conform to the letter and spirit of law and even ethics. This general framework applies to the DPS case. People should neither get worked up by it nor should they impute an agenda unless there is clear and compelling evidence to the contrary.

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