Spritzophrenia

humour, music, life, sociology. friendly agnostic.

Should Society Tell Women What To Wear?

Posted by spritzophrenia on May 17, 2010

In the news recently some European countries seek to ban the full face veil worn by some Muslim women – two variations known as the burkha and the niqab. Religious freedom and the veil has become a sticky issue.

This BBC article contains a useful guide to the most common styles of veil Muslim women wear – there’s more than two! Full face veils are a minority custom and a national Italian Islamic council is among many who point out that it’s not a core requirement of the religion. The Dean of Al Azhar University calls full face veiling “a custom that has nothing to do with the Islamic faith“.

Cultural differences can be both enlightening and amusing. It’s possible that veiling women only sexualises them more. I know of two women who lived in a country (Malaysia?) where women generally cover most of their body. They used to joke about local men lusting after body parts that nobody cared about in New Zealand. Then one day they both wore sleeveless blouses on a bus, and the driver almost drove off the road staring at their arms. After that they were more careful about what they wore.

In discussing the European situation with a friend we both agreed the only reason to ban full veils would be for security reasons. We don’t allow motorcycle helmets or balaclavas to be worn in banks and it’s probably reasonable to ban full face veils for the same reason. An alternative would be to require the veil to be dropped in certain situations, for example when stopped by the police.

esoteric
A woman wearing the Niqab protests in Tours, France, February 2010

However, some polititians have suggested that such veiling denigrates women and they propose a ban for feminist reasons. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the full veils “threaten the dignity of women”. Regardless of whether this is the case, that’s no reason to try and suppress someone’s culture. Let me say at this point I believe that, like conservative Christianity, conservative Islam represses woman and I’m not a fan of full face veils. Regardless, we may not like it but we must allow these women the freedom to choose such dress.

Ironically, I wonder whether the desire to “free” these women would have exactly the opposite effect, forcing them to stay at home because they won’t be able to go out in public. (On further reading I see the Muslim Executive of Belgium has argued the same thing, warning it would lead to women who do wear the veil being trapped in their homes.)

There is also some talk along the lines of “these people have come to our country and they should integrate with us”. Stefaan van Heck, an MP with the Belgian Green Party, is one who argues that unveiling women is better for social integration. However, integration should not mean assimilation. Diversity of cultures enriches our countries, and minority groups should be encouraged to retain their languages and customs provided we don’t end up with ghettos. I think if you are in a foreign country it’s respectful and wise to learn the language and follow local customs. However, this does not mean one has to completely lose one’s own culture.

Ban the burkha for security reasons if that’s the best solution, but don’t try to justify it by appealing to women’s rights or the need for cultural assimilation.

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What do you think?

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6 Responses to “Should Society Tell Women What To Wear?”

  1. When I came out of my 5 month coma disabled my mother said that I could wear a burkha. Lovely, eh? Many layers of feeling ugly and hidden were invoked. What started out as religious is a further ideological weapon.

  2. What amazes me is that people never stop and go “hey, there’s that whole ‘threatening dignity’ aspect of it, sure, but there’s also this kinda awesome and interesting stuff about modesty.” And if anything I think a woman wearing a full face veil for that reason is fascinating.

    But then I’ve forgotten most of my AS level Religious Studies so perhaps I need to do some digging through my old material before saying anything on the topic.

    Anyway, great article Jonathan, probably one of my favourite articles of yours to date!

  3. MRDA said

    My take:http://mrda.wordpress.com/2010/07/31/hypocrisy-halal-iii-dignit-galit-identitvanit/

  4. […] We talked about head-coverings, and she said it “isn’t in the Quran”, but in the Hadith. She also said such head coverings are a sign of status, these women are copying the Prophet’s wives, something I didn’t know. (My older post on head-coverings here). […]

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