Some personal disclosure, first: I never understood those people who feel most at ease when naked. If you sleep naked, you’re probably one of them. I’m not. I’m most comfortable when fully clothed. I like my arms to be covered by long sleeves, and my legs to be clothed in full-length trousers. I’ve been known to wear gloves about six months a year, especially when riding public transportation. For years, I could not imagine wearing sandals in public, and stuck to sneakers and shoes all summer. The fact that I now own not one but two pairs of peep-toe shoes, even if I rarely wear them, feels to me like an extraordinarily daring act.
So, here’s a candid reflection on headscarves. I don’t mind the idea of headscarves at all. As long as your face is shown – your expression, your personality, the sparkle in your eye – who cares about whether the rest of you is in plain view or hidden by a scarf?
Yet, our culture – ever since we threw the Victorian whalebone armor into the bonfire – associates freedom with the less restrictive dress codes. More skin, more freedom. It’s hard for us to understand how some women, in cultures that are not so far from ours, may choose to wear a headscarf as liberating. Yet, I have a lot of personal sympathy for this claim. I think I can instinctively understand how a woman, modestly dressed and with her hair covered, might find it somewhat easier to go about her business.
Yet this is not a commonly held view in the West. Ataturk, in the 1920s, decided that banning the Muslim headscarf was a necessary milestone in the secularization of Turkey. (Incidentally, the country just went through a psychodrama over the headscarf-wearing wife of presidential candidate Abdullah Gul, but let’s put this aside for a minute.) So, if – like Turkey, Tunisia, and some Western democracies – you decide to ban the Muslim headscarf from schools and public offices, where should you draw the line? Surely, then, the Polish legislator who is introducing a bill to ban miniskirts and see-through or low-cut blouses is justified too? In the end, that’s probably a more demeaning dress code than the headscarf, and perhaps a ban is healthy, one could argue. Our culture has plenty of instances of demeaning dress codes enforced by tacit agreement – and I don’t mean in Hollywood or Las Vegas. In my country, a member country of G7 and a founding member of the European Union, I have seen corporate cultures where the dress code for women – usually confined to administrative or other low-ranking jobs – involved plunging necklines, miniskirts and high heels. I will repeat it for the sake of my American readers, who may not remember life before Politically Correct: I have seen corporate cultures where, to this day, women are expected to come to the office in plunging necklines, miniskirts and high heels. In the summer, those places look like meat markets. I’d choose full Muslim garb any time.
Of course, at least from a libertarian point of view, banning any sort of harmless personal or religious expression doesn’t make sense. Such a point of view would also argue that, in personal appearance, rules of any kind invite defiance, and therefore defeat themselves. (The Economist reports that in both Turkey and Tunisia “veiling, which a decade ago was confined largely to the tradition-bound poor, has made a middle-class comeback”; at the same time, some of the countries with some of the strictest rules mandating headscarves – Iran, Saudi Arabia – are witnessing “an undercurrent of rebellion against sartorial rules of any kind.”) So, let people wear what they want, perhaps with minimal exceptions for identification documents and the like. Don’t ban anything, or it will come back to haunt you.
Are bans ever justified? Perhaps under revolutionary conditions, when a strong break with tradition is needed (as in 1920s Turkey, and probably even more so in today’s Taliban strongholds?) Or when whoever gets to decide feels that there’s not enough separation between church and state? If I were a ruler in charge of deciding on this criterion, I probably wouldn’t ban anything in Turkey and in France, who are established separationists; yet, I’d be tempted to ban religious displays from schools and public offices in the United States, where those boundaries are a lot more porous.
It is plain to see that the world doesn’t work according to logic. We have a lot of bans that ought to go, and we may engage in intellectual play over some that are never going to happen. Yet, I think if I were to meet Mrs. Gul, we’d probably have more in common than one would first guess. For a start, she probably doesn’t have too many pairs of peep-toe shoes either.