Thursday, December 31, 2015

Freeing the Nipple, Banning the Burqa: On Sartorial Liberty

I have consistently seen that, when faced with the twin demons of Islamist theocracy and anti-Muslim bigotry, some of my friends on the left will side with the former rather than being accused of the latter.

I recently had the honor, privilege, and pleasure of giving a TEDx talk in Jersey City on the topic of dress codes and sartorial freedom (I'll post a video as soon as its up.) One dress code I discussed was hijab, or the varied practice across many Muslim communities of either requiring or recommending that women cover themselves up in some particular way. Recently, in one of the usual shows of supposed solidarity that some on the left like to make after a terrorist attack over a not-unfounded fear of a backlash against Muslims, some non-Muslim women are donning hijab. This is a very misguided way to show support for Muslims who face bigotry because by implicitly endorsing the hijab as a symbol of Islam and Muslim womanhood it undermines the claims of validity and piety of Muslim women who choose not to cover themselves and, more importantly, those who are fighting for their right not to cover themselves in places where it is mandatory. Asra Q. Nomani and Hala Arafa wrote an excellent op-Ed piece in the Washington Post about this a week ago and today the always-incisive Maajid Nawaz wrote a column for the Daily Beast on the same subject.

Some might assume that someone as passionate about dressing up as I am would be in favor of dress codes that call for greater formality, but the main point of my talk was that the clothes a person wears are robbed of all meaning and power and neutered as personal expression if they become mandatory - a uniform. As it is, I'm against all dress odes but the narrowest ones regarding safety, just as I'm against all speech codes apart from those proscribing actual immediate threats.

When I say all dress codes I mean all dress codes, no matter what the authority. I think a government telling you what to wear is just as wrong as a holy book telling you what to wear. I think a cop telling women they shouldn't dress like sluts in order not to get raped (the inspiration for the "Slutwalk" marches,) is no more offensive than an Imam telling a girl that modesty is her duty so that she might be protected from the supposedly uncontrollable lusts of men.

As a secularist, freedom of religion is very important to me, as is the freedom to criticize religion. This position, which may seem contradictory is central to the very idea of secularism, and it's been highlighted nowhere more clearly in recent days than in the controversy over Islamic clothing in Western societies. In the most recent Canadian election, the question of women wearing the full face covering at citizenship ceremonies became a campaign issue. Raheel Raza wrote a passionate article in the Huffington Post explaining that by allowing or defending the burqa or niqab, well-meaning liberals were in fact defending a backward, repressive, and extremist version of their religion and validating a cultural practice they themselves see as illegitimate and non-obligatory. Salman Rushdie has in the past talked about the generations of Muslim women in his Kashmiri family who would have fought and died rather than be forced to wear a veil.

Where I disagree with Raza is in her call to ban the burqa and niqab in Canada. I think this is a big mistake. Aside from the fact that it may further alienate Muslims and play into a grievance narrative about Muslims being persecuted in the West, I don't believe that its the government's place to tell people what they can and can't wear. It's a clear violation of freedom of expression, which I believe should be nearly absolute. (I should note that in some instances and places, such as government buildings, hospitals, and schools, prohibiting face coverings and masks make perfect sense to me as security measures.)

This isn't to say that I approve of the burqa or even the hijab. Quite the opposite. I find them unfair, ugly, and inherently sexist, simply because girls are made to wear them but their brothers aren't. A rule applied unevenly to women and men should be the very definition of sexism, to say nothing of the fact that the reason often given for such dress codes is the notion of modesty being a woman's duty. Making female sexual purity a focal point of morality, aloingside poisonous notions of familial honor is terrible. Reducing a woman's piety to her outward performance of chastity is a shallow spirituality. And any god who would demand that half his creation cover themselves would necessarily be a small and petty one. This doesn't strike me as the basis for any noble or grand theology.

Western feminists don't seem to be lining up to denounce Islamic dress codes imposed on women as vocally as they denounce other authorities telling them that they should or shouldn't dress a certain way. They seem uncharacteristically quiet when their sisters in countries with mandatory modesty laws bravely resist them - at risk of great, even corporal, punishment - and ask for solidarity. I can only suppose that this is out of some kind of cultural sensitivity - that it is not their place to criticize another culture. This sort of relativism is a betrayal of internationalism, cosmopolitanism, and universal human solidarity. And it does little good to remain silent on the question of dress codes in a secular society - especially in cases when they overwhelmingly affect the lives of women. The most perverse pretzel-like twisting of this accommodation to extremism is the sight of self-proclaimed feminists donning hijab in "solidarity."

An argument can be made that items like the hijab are important symbols of identity to some Muslim women. Aside from the implication that women who don't cover themselves or who resist dress codes aren't somehow authentically Muslim, the argument that an item of clothing is central to someone's cultural identity doesn't automatically make it a good thing. If it did, we'd be much more accepting of idiots with Confederate Battle Flag patches on their jean jackets blathering on about their heritage and Southern way of life. And, to follow on from an earlier point, dress codes (rather than just dress,) tend to express group identity rather than individual identity, and if the expression is mandatory it cease to be an expression of personal value (i.e. if someone or some authority is telling you have no choice in the matter that also means you have no voice in the matter.) As a result, the hijab is only a meaningful personal expression of piety, identity, spirituality, religion, and community, in circumstances where there is no law or pressure on the woman wearing it, whether from her family, community, state, or clergy.

Again, I don't think banning burqas or hijab is the answer to sexist religious dress codes any more than banning the rebel flag is the answer to racism. I think that Muslim women in the west should be completely free to follow any dress codes their conscience demands of them (provided it is of their free choice and not coerced or pressures,) but people should recognize that that same freedom means that their expression and practice must be open to examination and criticism, and a frank discussion of the value of a female-only religious dress code shouldn't be dismissed, derailed, or silenced by bogus charges of racism, bigotry, or Islamophobia. We must defend peoples freedom to wear what they choose while exercising our freedom to speak out against all dress codes.

For those of us who don't follow religious or clerically-demanded dress codes, we should lead by example, not by making laws limiting how others can dress and express their religion, but by demonstrating to young generations of women of all cultures that a woman's value and worth isn't tied to her wardrobe, and that the right to dress as one chooses is universally empowering, whether you choose to follow a dress code or not.

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