Muslim Women’s Clothing

Author: Alia Hogben

Source: Whig Column

Untitled3Controversy over Muslim women’s clothing has caused recent headlines, namely the burkini on the French beach and the hijab as part of the RCMP uniform.

I am sickened by the photograph of a French beach where three police officers crowd around a Muslim woman who is being forced to take off her clothes including the burkini. There are other people around who do not look disturbed by what is happening. For me, the photo is horrifyingly reminiscent of war-time photos of the public humiliation meted out to earlier French women whose shaved heads demonstrated their shame.

How can France or any other civilized country not be offended by this undressing of a woman in public by three male representatives of the state?

Don’t we want some standards of common decency so that we treat each other with respect by showing moral and honest behaviour and attitudes? Please don’t tell me horror stories of how women are being treated in Muslim-majority countries because I, too, am horrified and, anyway, these do not justify bad treatment in France or, for that matter, any other country.

This world-wide obsession with women’s clothing has reached beyond the norms of common decency. What is the point of lauding human rights when a woman cannot go into the water to enjoy a swim on a hot summer’s day?

We would agree that clothes are a form of non-verbal communication as they can transmit social signals and identify a person’s class, income, beliefs and employment.

In addition to this kind of cultural norm, they may also communicate religious beliefs. For example, the Amish, the Mennonites, Hasidic Jews and many Muslims express their ideas of modesty by the attire they wear. The rules affect both genders but more emphasis is on women’s dress. For all these women, modesty includes covering their head and their hair, and being physically segregated at certain times or places.

We don’t have to like or agree with the different ways women choose to dress, but surely we can accommodate these choices about clothing as long as they don’t impinge on others, or require onerous accommodation, or become obligatory for all of us.

For example, there is no consensus among Muslims about whether women’s head coverings are mandatory. So any state or country which mandates women’s dress, especially Muslim women’s, is wrong. In the same way, no state should decree that these women should be uncovered.

The burkini is a bathing suit that covers all of the female body except the face. Some communities in France, the land of liberte, egalite et fraternite, have decided that the burkini is incompatible with the values of France. The bikini is now considered more consistent with French values. The burkini apparently threatens French secularism.

However, the bikini has not always illustrated French values. There is a 1957 photograph of a woman in a bikini who is being given a ticket by a policeman for her indecent attire.

A point of interest is that the woman who dons the burkini may still displease the more traditional Muslim males. This is because they would tell her that the profile of her body can be seen and thus her burkini is still not acceptable. She is caught between the “secularists” and the “religious.” Best that she dress as she wishes!

I would plead with the French to pay less attention to women’s clothing and instead deal with the far more serious issues that they have, including immigration, integration, discrimination and identity.

In Canada we are relatively tolerant and accepting of diversity, so that the hijab under the RCMP hat has now become part of the uniform. It became official policy this year. I think the reasoning is that if it does not impede safety or security and does no harm to the wearer or those around, then we can make these accommodations.

However, in Canada, there are some demands for accommodations that I think are unreasonable and to which we should not acquiesce.

The majority of Canadians are willing to accommodate issues around modesty of dress. but related to the attire of women is the demand for gender segregation. Enforced gender segregation as an extension of modesty should not be condoned by any of us, Muslims or non-Muslims. It can be damaging to both men and women.

In my view, that’s accommodation too far.

Why?  Gender segregation can also mean gender stereotyping. For example, women are seen as emotional, men as rational and also more highly sexed. Women, therefore – so goes the rationale – must hide their own sexuality and cover up so as not to “tempt” men. This is patriarchy at its worst, laying the blame and responsibility on women and girls.

There is a false assumption that gender segregation will protect men and women from licentiousness. I don’t think so!

How wise is Einstein: “If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies.”