The Institute of Public Health, a national institute under the Director General of Health Services (DGHS), Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, issued a notice signed by its Director on October 29. The said notice instructed the Muslim employees to abide by religious dress code: for male employees, clothes that do not go below the ankle and for female employees, headscarves and clothes that go below ankle in length. Upon receiving show-cause notices from the concerned Ministry and DGHS, the notice was withdrawn subsequently.
Nonetheless, the instructions by way of notice issued by a public institute as such brings to the forefront an essential legal perspective. The Bangladesh Constitution expresses commitment of the State to uphold and protect citizens' rights and liberties. In understanding the intersection of those rights and the notice at hand, a 2010 judgment (Advocate Salauddin Dolon v Government of Bangladesh and other) is worth mentioning. In the said judgment, the High Court Division clarified some pertinent points regarding the imposition of dress codes.
Article 39 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and expression. Freedom of expression, according to the High Court Division, ranges from the articulation of words and images to actions and lifestyle choices, including choices around one's manner of dress and behavior. The Court further observed that arbitrary gender-based codes for acceptable demeanour and dress also violate the rights to privacy and to free expression protected under international law.
The Court went on to also highlight the particular obligations undertaken by Bangladesh under international treaties and conventions. For instance, as party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), among others, Bangladesh has agreed to bar interference with the right to privacy (Article 17) and to protect freedom of expression (Article 19). Bangladesh has the obligation to respect and ensure these rights, and to do so in a non-discriminatory manner. Additionally, as the 2010 case concerned the imposition of dress code on a woman, the Court highlighted the international obligations of Bangladesh under the Convention on the Elimination of all kinds of Discrimination Against Women, 1979.
Furthermore, the Court also referred to Article 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), that ensures the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work. In the Court's opinion, imposition of arbitrary and intrusive dress-code at work place violates the mandate of the said Article.
In the present case, the notice by the Public Health Institute, as a national institute, and undersigned by a public official, was a clear violation of the Constitution, and thus amenable to writ jurisdiction of the High Court Division.