Beyond the guidelines: A closer look at the unwritten dress code in Indian medical colleges

Many female students tend not to fight the system due to fear of reprisal and, over time, the unwritten rules also become normative.

BySumit Jha

Published Jun 10, 2023 | 9:00 AMUpdated Jun 10, 2023 | 9:00 AM

Beyond the guidelines: A closer look at the unwritten dress code in Indian medical colleges

Much like schools, several medical colleges impose certain dress code expectations — often unwritten — on both male and female students. These expectations regulate how students behave and conduct themselves, and also govern their attire during their time at the college.

In the Telugu states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, the unwritten dress code for male students prohibits leaving the first button of their shirt open and wearing full or ¾ sleeve shirts, sleeveless shirts, jeans, shorts, or T-shirts during class hours.

Similarly, female students are typically expected to avoid wearing sleeveless or ¾ sleeve shirts, jeans, leggings, T-shirts, casuals, and short tops while on campus. The dress code also commonly prohibits the use of chappals (flip-flops) for both genders.

Although these dress code restrictions aim to maintain a certain level of formality and professionalism within the college environment, the question arises if they can be perceived as restrictive — limiting both individual expression and comfort.

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When your marks depend on it!

Recently, singer Chinmayi Sripaada tweeted screenshots from her Instagram DMs where some women student had shared with her real-life examples of how the dress code has become regressive and how it even impacts their academic performance.

Female students reported instances where viva marks were deducted for not wearing their dupattas properly or not wearing one at all. They expressed frustration over being accused of “tempting” male students by not adhering to the (unwritten) dress code.

“…I am a medico in Telangana… Viva marks getting deducted if dupatta is not worn properly/not worn at all…. Is a thing in medical colleges ma’am… Female professors accuse girls of ‘tempting’ boys by not wearing dupatta…. ‘Dupatta veskokunda thirgutharu… Tarvata vulgar ga chusthunnaru ani antaru boys ni… Ila thirigithe chudaka em chestharu (you people roam around without a dupatta, and when boys look at you in a vulgar way, you complain. How will they be without looking at you if you roam like this)’ said one of our female professor to one of our batchmates,” [sic] read one of the screenshots.

“She even degrades us…Kaani chala decent dressing eh untadi ma’am andharidhi but dupatta lekapothe matram ala veskoni vallani chusi vallaki mandippthuntadi… Kavalani target chesi tough questions adgatam… Cheppina kuda thakkuva marks veyadam chestharu (In fact, we dress modestly ma’am, just because we don’t wear a dupatta, she targets us.. She purposefully targets us, asks us tough questions… And even if we answer, she gives us less marks),” [sic] read the screenshot that Chinmayi shared on Twitter.

Another screenshot from a female student mentioned restrictions on wearing leggings and short kurtas, and wearing patiala pants with oiled hair during exams.

“…Same in our college where the so called paediatric HOD sees you from top to bottom making you feel so uncomfortable.. With all the restrictions on girls.. Shouldn’t wear ankle leggings, short kurthis… During exams, all girls should oil the hair and wear patiala pants only… Shouldn’t talk or go out with fellow boy classmates it seems.. If he sees it by any chance then you’ll be noted and failed in the practicals, so toxix he is,” [sic] read the student’s message.

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Another student said that she was asked to leave the classroom and was marked absent because her ankles were exposed.

“During my periods I was sitting in a chair holding my stomach tightly by bending forward. A lady HOD mam of OMR department she told me to get out of the department. Thought it was because of the way I was sitting n started to explain that I am having periods. But shockingly what she said is that my ankle is getting exposed,” [sic] read the student’s DM to the singer.

She further added, “Chinmayi akka I don’t whether you will believe me or not. I promise. Not even a word is lie which I am sharing with you. Even my friends were shocked. And she marked me absent for the next 3 days even though I have attended the college and made me extension for those 3 days at the end of the month. Still I don’t understand why ladies are always against to ladies. And not just this incident sis. Like these so many incidents. Even they took one of my friends mobile while she was using her mobile in the department and started reading all her personal chats with her boyfriend.” [sic]

Unwritten rules & how students respond

Digging into the larger matter at hand further, South First spoke to some medical students in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Most of the girls appeared apprehensive about standing up against this unwritten dress code for fear that their actions would be used to hand them academic demerits, like reduced marks.

“Decent dressing is what’s been followed since eternity,” a female student of Gandhi Medical College (GMC) told South First.

Women wearing sleeveless clothes are frowned upon in many Indian medical colleges. (Creative Commons)

Women wearing sleeveless clothes are frowned upon in many Indian medical colleges. (Creative Commons)

“There are so many rules in my college where I have to wear only these kind of dresses. When you join the institution, you mingle with your seniors through ice-breaking sessions. One of the seniors told me that if I wanted to be in the good books of the faculty, I have to come to the classes wearing decent clothes. I should not provoke any faculty in any way, especially with my clothing choices. And till now, I am following it,” another student of Gandhi Medical College told South First.

A female student from Andhra Medical College (AMC), Visakhapatnam, added that it’s the fear of provoking the faculty in any form that makes them shy away from certain clothes.

“We don’t usually interact much with these faculty members. In a batch of 100 or 200, the faculty doesn’t notice you. To be noticeable, you have to behave a certain way. And if you are wearing something that brings attention, you will get noticed by the head of faculty. When you meet such faculty face-to-face during the practical examination, you would not like to lose marks because of your clothes,” the student from AMC told South First.

The student added, “Why would we want to lose marks when we have worked hard for a year? So, instead, we comply and, over the period of time, it has become normal for us.”

Speaking to South First, a fourth-year MBBS student from Osmania Medical College (OMC), Hyderabad, has a different take on the matter.

She said, “When it comes to clothing, conservative choices are encouraged for girls. I often opt for outfits like kurta leggings or suits if I’m inclined towards them. The key word here is conservative, as it aligns with the professional environment I’m entering. By adhering to these guidelines, I am able to present myself as a competent and professional medical student. It helps me create a positive impression and fosters a sense of professionalism in my interactions with colleagues, mentors, and patients.”

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The normative dress code?

Some of the students South First spoke said that during the first year of MBBS, in which Anatomy is taught, it’s highly demanded that students dress properly.

Female doctors are expected to wear their hair in a ponytail during class hours. (Creative Commons)

Female doctors are expected to wear their hair in a ponytail during class hours. (Creative Commons)

In support of the dress code, the OMC student said, “The Anatomy Department emphasises the importance of wearing proper attire for our safety and hygiene. To ensure a professional appearance, we are instructed to put our hair under the apron to minimise the risk of contamination from pathogenic organisms present around the cadavers. This requires me to comb my hair neatly and pull it back into a ponytail. I am mindful to avoid fringes or leaving my hair loose as it not only presents an unprofessional image, but also poses a potential risk to myself and others in the dissection hall. The department’s concern is for our well-being and the need to adhere to strict hygiene protocols in the labs.”

However, not everyone feels this way. A student said, “During Anatomy class, in the lab, a female faculty member passed belittling comments such as ‘You are not here to impress any boy’ to a another female student whose hair was left untied.”

She added that this experience left her feeling uneasy and constrained. She said that it was disheartening when personal style choices are met with such strict disapproval, especially when they are not inherently inappropriate or disruptive.

“I believe that as long as one maintains a professional appearance and respects the overall decorum, there should be room for individual expression and comfort in dressing,” she added.

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For PG junior doctors

A practicing junior doctor in a medical college in Hyderabad, who is from outside the state, shared with South First that, sometimes, she feels uncomfortable when teachers stare at her just because she is wearing jeans.

“It’s something I’ve noticed here, even outside the hospital setting. There was a conference I attended where I chose to wear formal pants and a shirt. It wasn’t related to the faculty or any official event, but I happened to run into some of my professors there. However, they treated me differently,” said the PG junior doctor from OMC.

She added that during the initial weeks, being from outside the state, she wasn’t accustomed to the dress code norms.

“So, on that occasion, I wore smart pants with a formal shirt and layered it with an apron. To my surprise, my assistant professor made it clear that I should never wear such attire again. She insisted that from the next day onwards, I must strictly adhere to the prescribed unwritten dress code,” said the PG junior doctor.

‘Exemplary in every aspect of our professional lives’

One of the junior doctor explained that as doctors, they are expected to be exemplary in every aspect of their professional lives.

“This includes our behaviour, character, and even our sense of dressing. People should look at us and immediately recognise us as doctors, respecting us for our knowledge and expertise. It is important to avoid any form of objectification or seeking undue attention,” Dr Vanya Jasmine, a PG surgeon from OMC, told South First.

She added that in the professional space, they must prioritise simplicity in attire.

“Our clothing should not be revealing or awkward as it can undermine our professionalism and the trust patients place in us. During the initial years, particularly in the first and second year of medical school, there are often unwritten guidelines in place to ensure we understand and internalise this concept. However, as we progress into our postgraduate days, we are generally expected to have already developed an understanding of appropriate attire and conduct,” said Vanya.

She added that building a professional character from the beginning is crucial as it will shape reputation and influence how one is perceived in later years. While it may not be explicitly stated, being a part of a prestigious institute necessitates maintaining a certain decorum and upholding professional standards, she noted.

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Silent voices out there

“As a medical college student, I have often heard a popular saying regarding the dress code at CMC Vellore, a prestigious institution in our country. It is said that until the early 2000s, women students were required to wear saris every day, even during classes and visits to the OPD. However, in recent years, we have been granted the freedom to wear salwar suits. Many of us feel that the dress code is a reflection of the peculiar mentality held by some of our professors,” a second-year MBBS student from Gandhi Medical College, Secunderabad, told South First.

The AMC student South First spoke to added that it seemed like the professors believe that female students should not be granted any more freedom than what they were given 30 years ago, and that they should still be wearing what they wore in the 90s.

“This perspective on the dress code is something we question as we believe it is important to adapt and embrace more contemporary approaches that respect our individuality and comfort,“ said the AMC student.

“We are mature enough to recognise when our rights are being infringed upon through comments or actions targeting our way of dressing. Unfortunately, we find ourselves in a difficult predicament where we are unable to express ourselves freely. The fear of standing up against these faculty members is enough to create anxiety about the potential consequences it may have on our academic performance and exams. It’s hard to to assert our rights without fear of reprisal,” said another student.

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