Freedom to Dress

Freedom to Dress August 26, 2009

It’s a sad day when you read stories like this from the city where the renowned Library of Alexandria once stood:

Along the miles of crowded beachfront in Egypt’s second city, women in bathing suits are nowhere in sight.

On Alexandria’s breeze-blown shores, they all wear long-sleeve shirts and ankle-length black caftans topped by head scarves. Awkwardly afloat in the rough seas, the bathers look like wads of kelp loosened from the sandy bottom.

In Alexandria, a city once renowned for its culture and its cosmopolitanism, those secular values are having to contend with a rigid and increasingly aggressive strain of Islam exported from Saudi Arabia, here constituted by a political party called the Muslim Brotherhood. As is always the case, this movement takes no heed of the city’s rich and diverse history:

“At the end of the day, that’s all history,” said Sobhi Saleh, a Brotherhood member of Parliament.

…Even the library — with its museum that includes pharaonic, Greek, Roman, Coptic and Islamic relics — is misguided, Mr. Saleh said.

“There, Islam is just one topic among many. We don’t like those naked Greek statues. Anyway, that’s over. Islam should have a special status at the library,” he said. “This is a Muslim city in a Muslim country; that is our identity.”

As the article notes, the Muslim Brotherhood has won support by handing out food and social services to Egypt’s millions of poor. But in exchange for that help, it’s seeking – and winning – more and more restrictions on people’s freedom: enforced Islamic attire for women, the disappearance of alcohol from restaurants, and growing tension and violence with Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. This is a point worth remembering when people praise religion for the good it’s done for the world’s poor and needy. Too often, the price of that help is much steeper than it first appears.

But while the spread of Islamic fundamentalism is worrying, there are good ways and bad ways to oppose it. France hasn’t chosen a good way:

France’s struggle with Islamic dress has moved into the swimming pool after a 35-year-old woman was banned from bathing in her “burkini”, a head-to-toe swimsuit.

…a 32-member parliamentary inquiry… opened last month to review the possibility of a law to bar Muslim women from wearing the face-covering niqab in public. President Sarkozy stirred fundamentalist anger in June when he sided with the review, saying that such dress was not a symbol of faith, but a sign of women’s subservience and that it had “no place in France”. (source)

The stated reason for banning this woman from the public pool was hygiene, but since her dress is basically a wetsuit, that seems unlikely to be the real reason. France has been moving in the direction of restricting public displays of religious attire since 2004, when it banned headscarves in state-run schools. As the above quote shows, they’re now considering outlawing many kinds of religious dress altogether.

I understand France’s desire to maintain a secular state and prevent the religious oppression of women, but this isn’t the way to do it. The woman in this case isn’t even from a Muslim family, but was an adult convert from Christianity – it’s absurd to argue that she was being coerced. And banning religious attire in schools and public places isn’t going to free women from Islamic families. If anything, it’s likely to result in them being even more restricted and less able to leave their homes.

Forcing women to wear Muslim garb, or banning them from wearing it, are wrong for the same reasons. When it comes to people expressing themselves, dress is second only to speech. Any restriction on freedom of expression should be justified by only the most compelling reasons, and the mere desire to maintain an outwardly secular state isn’t one of those. Fighting imposed religious oppression is a worthy goal, but this is a battle of ideas and persuasion, not one that can be won by the force of law. If the values and freedoms offered by the Western world – or the Islamic world, for that matter – are superior, people will come to adopt them of their own free will. If they’re not superior, trying to impose them anyway is an effort that’s bound to end only in failure and worsened division.

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