The issue of dress codes is one that arouses strong passions. Part of the problem is the gender bias involved. What women wear comes under much closer scrutiny than what men wear and the stringent dress codes that Muslim (and Orthodox Jewish) women must operate under in many parts of the world is one of the hottest of issues. In 35 nations some form of veiling of women is compulsory.
I think that most people would agree that any form of dress that people choose to wear voluntarily (that is not part of work requirements and that does not create safety or other problems) should be exempt from criticism. But it is not always easy to determine what is truly voluntary and what is heavily pressured.
Terri Murray looks at many of the justifications given for the burqa and explains why they don’t hold up under close scrutiny. Her article is well worth reading in full, but I want to highlight just one thing she deals with.
In Islamic cultures the predominant theological reasoning for veiling seems to be that the female body is such a powerful sexual object that nothing short of covering it can prevent men from molesting it. According to Islamic Hadith (or poor interpretations of it) the female body is so powerfully sexual that it is literally irresistible to the opposite sex.
The claim that covering yourself up in public is an empowering choice insults the intelligence and dignity of women everywhere, just as the theological claim that the burqa is a necessary defence against predatory male sexuality insults Muslim men insofar as it treats them as fundamentally incapable of responsibility for their sexual behaviour.
One issue that Murray does not treat is that even secular societies require some form of compulsory covering up of both men and women. You can get arrested if you walk naked in public in Cleveland. So what constitutes ‘reasonable’ and ‘unreasonable’ dress requirements?
One aspect of this is of gender equity. I sometimes see from my office window a couple walking down the street. The man is dressed in casual western dress, short-sleeved shirt and slacks. The woman walks a few paces behind, fully covered from head to toe in black, irrespective of how hot it is. The fact that he can wear whatever he likes and she feels that, for whatever reason, she cannot seem to be somehow unfair. Some societies have laws requiring women to dress like that, others have strong family and social pressures on women to conform even if they don’t want to, in yet other cases women have internalized those dress norms and feel that they are freely choosing to dress that way.
What underlying principle enables us to arrive at a reasonable solution? Would the principle that all legal dress requirements be gender neutral settle it? i.e., that all legal requirements be written in such a way that they apply equally to all genders and that people should be free to dress in any way that meets those requirements?