The University of Zambia is situated in that country’s capital city, Lusaka. Here students dress more fashionably than the average citizen of this culturally conservative nation. Recently, notices were put up by university staff, asking female students to observe ‘modesty’ when using the university’s facilities.

The notice in the library reads, “It has come to our attention that some female students dress half-naked as they use the library, a situation which is disturbing the male students. We therefore advise the female students to dress modestly as you use university facilities. Modest is the way to go!”

This directive met with diverse reactions from the student body and faculty, but two students summed it up best for the female fraternity: “Why should they ask [female students] how to dress? Let them wear what they want anytime and anywhere,” male student Anthony Kunda told the news service AFP, adding, “If some male students are not happy, that is their problem.”

“If your reason for going to the library is to study, why should you start looking at other things, like a female’s legs?” third-year student Dikina Muzeya told the BBC. “Just concentrate on your books, that’s all.”

Modesty is subjective

Society is obsessed with the female body and how it affects or attracts the male gaze. A woman’s appearance dictates how the world interacts with her or how she is treated in almost every environment. Modesty is lauded as the ideal whereas most fashion-forward trends are seen as being immodest, risqué and inappropriate. Clearly, this is a subjective issue.

Read: Why Respectability Politics is Failing African Women and Girls

To illustrate this subjectivity, in the 1960s mini-skirts and mini-dresses were commonplace and not at all an item of clothing that would draw attention or raise eyebrows. However, now that very same item of clothing is considered too short for daytime wear.

It is evident that enforcing standards of modesty on women is about controlling them, rather than ‘protecting’ them. This is counterproductive and undermines their bodily autonomy. The fixation on female bodies is destructive and accounts for a lot of sexual assault, which is bolstered by the “you asked for it” mentality.

Women should not be made responsible for the thoughts and actions of men. While one cannot discount that a revealing dress might affect a man, young or old, focusing on this aspect alone does an enormous disservice to women. The onus is put entirely on the female gender to constantly cater to their surroundings at any given time. Instead, the focus should be on educating both sexes on the appropriate behaviour in regard to sexual harassment, personal boundaries and mutual respect.

If schools wanted to ensure that the next generation grew up without damaging stereotypes, they need to stop demanding that girls “cover up”. Instead, they should normalise unrestricted respect for women and make the individual – male or female – take ownership of his or her behaviour.