Jewish World Review Sept. 15, 2004 / 29 Elul, 5764

Felice Cohen

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Consumer Reports

Government-empowered fashion police | NEW YORK — As the rain pounds the South, our own streets are getting flooded with waves of fresh-faced students heading to the first day of school. For many, back-to-school means new clothes from the GAP, but for others it means a wardrobe full of conservative uniforms.

On the Upper East Side, scores of matching girls wearing black shoes, knee-high socks, pleated miniskirts and white shirts skip down the streets on their way to private schools. As the semester progresses, these outfits alter a bit, with the addition of groovy socks and funky tops. But no matter how hard the wind howls, the miniskirts remain.

Not to be outdone, public schools have their own rules based on what is found offensive. According to Rosie, a bright seventh grader at Pearl River grammar school in Westchester, "Girls cannot wear skirts shorter than arm's length."

As for the boys, they're not allowed to wear their pants so low that their underwear shows.

"It's a jail thing," a teacher at the High School of Economics and Finance in Lower Manhattan told me. "Baggy pants came from jail where they take belts away which makes the pants sag. Kids picked up that look. Same with wearing boots open wide. In jail they take away shoelaces, too." With high school students facing so much pressure to fit in, should they wear uniforms?

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"I'm glad we don't have restrictions," Rosie said. "It's easier to show who you are and express yourself."

In France, public schools have gone a step further, banning all religious symbols and apparel, which include headscarves, turbans, yarmulkes and crosses. But some French students last week broke this law - more than a 100 girls wore headscarves and five boys refused to remove their turbans. School officials are now in concentrated talks of what to do with these "disobedient" students and are considering expulsion. Maybe it's me, but expelling kids seems to defeat the whole purpose of school.

Are these religious students really a threat to others? Are they the ones bringing guns and switchblades into classrooms? Are they the ones bullying kids out of their lunch money? The only thing they're doing is wearing their proverbial hearts on their sleeves, only in this case, it's on their heads.

"It sounds prejudice," Rosie said, "If you practice a strict religion you can't just stop doing that, it's what you believe in. It's a part of you."

Already faced with an anti-Semitism crisis, something seems terribly wrong if the French think the solution is kicking yarmulke-wearing or cross-bearing students out of school - a place they go to learn and be exposed to people with different beliefs, cultures and values.

Do the French think by keeping everyone uniform it will keep a religious war from entering their country or do they just want to stop everyone's freedom?

I should think they would be more afraid of the kids without any attachment to religion, the ones without structure and learned values. Those are the ones who seem more apt to blow away classmates with a loaded .44 in the lunchroom.

Suddenly, the short skirts and baggy pants don't seem as offensive as the laws in France.

Comment on JWR contributor Felice Cohen's column by clicking here.


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© 2004, Felice Cohen