The Institute of Public Health issued a circular on Wednesday asking Muslim women employees to wear hijab and to make sure that their clothes cover their ankle joints.
After widespread criticism on social media and a show-cause notice from the health ministry yesterday, the institute's director withdrew the order.
"It is being ordered that 'purdah' be maintained," said Wednesday's notice, signed by Director of the Institute of Public Health (IPH) Dr Muhammad Abdur Rahim.
The health ministry yesterday issued a "show-cause" notice, asking Rahim to explain why "he issued the circular" and "based on which rule and upon approval from which authority" did he do it.
The IPH director withdrew the notice soon afterwards. Prof Dr ABM Khurshid Alam, director general of the DGHS, said, "Rahim sent a letter to me saying sorry and that he will not make such mistakes in future. He has withdrawn the circular. But the issue is not going to end here.
"He has to officially explain why he would do this."
Wednesday's IPH circular said, "For Muslims, men must make sure their clothes do not cover their ankle joints… and women must wear hijabs in addition to making sure that their clothes cover their ankle joints."
The IPH director was asked to reply to the health ministry "show-cause" notice within three working days, said the notice signed by Deputy Secretary Sharmin Akter Jahan of the ministry.
A ministry spokesperson said the order to issue a "show-cause" letter came from the health minister himself.
The Daily Star made multiple phone calls and sent texts to Dr Abdur Rahim. He did not respond before switching off his phone.
Bangla Tribune quoted him as saying, "Ours is a Muslim country; if the people in our office, our country are adorned in this manner, it will make me feel good. I have given this order to ensure that my staff are following the path of discipline and rahamat."
Dr Mahbuba Jamil, head of the virology lab at IPH, was contacted by The Daily Star. "I have received the notice. I do not know why this was issued," she said.
Prof Nasima Sultana, additional director general of the DGHS, said, "He [IPH director] cannot do this. We have asked him to withdraw it immediately.
"Any such notice requires prior approval from multiple levels. He has not done any such thing. He has issued the circular without maintaining the procedure."
State Minister for Public Administration Farhad Hossain said no government official can issue such a circular mentioning a religious dress code for his office.
"Bangladesh is a secular country. People of different religions work in the offices. Therefore, such a circular citing dress code cannot be issued," he told The Daily Star.
Salma Ali, veteran women's rights lawyer, said, "No one has the right to impose a separate rule for any government office without any discussion with the stakeholders. Human rights, and gender equality and this order cannot exist together."
Shireen Haq of Naripokkho said, "This notice is absolutely outrageous. Women's clothing is policed everywhere. In public places especially, women are routinely harassed for not covering their heads, or for not carrying scarves; but at least those harassments come from strangers. When a workplace, an institution, polices women's clothing, it is absolutely unacceptable. He does not know that imposing a dress code to followers of a certain religion is against the constitution."