Although the impulse to help people by controlling them may sound like a good idea to some, adhering to democratic ideals strike it from the list of viable options. But policy leaders in Europe have been increasingly more inclined to “protect” Muslim women – and the rest of the population – from themselves by banning them from wearing hijab in public. If you’ve ever before read this column, I think you know my opinion on this issue.
Do I habitually wear a head-covering for religious reasons? No. Would I ever do so? Almost definitely not. But my decisions about my body are exactly that. It is not for me, or for anyone else, to decide that a woman may not wear hijab while she’s walking down the street. Just as the government hasn’t the right to decide what skirt-length is appropriate for me, neither does it have the right to legislate the sartorial expression of faith or culture. (I recognize that claim covers a lot of ground, but for the sake of brevity, I don’t want to bring in issues of nudity, obscenity as defined by the government, and the manifold definitions of “faith” and “culture.” Let’s stick with the topic of traditional head-coverings for this column.)
That a Belgian woman could face arrest for wearing traditional Islamic clothing is not only a trespass against the religious rights of a citizen. The recent law banning the hijab in public is also infuriatingly patronizing, seeing as the ostensible objective of it is to save her from herself. Belgian center-right MP Daniel Bacquelaine said banning the hijab is “a question of human dignity. The full face veil turns a woman into a walking prison.”
Bacquelaine, you see, is taking it upon himself to define the social and religious experience of an entire group of women. I find it interesting that Bacquelaine, a man and non-Muslim, is protecting their “human dignity” by taking away their freedom of religious expression.
That isn’t to say that addressing the oppression of women in general isn’t important; if you’ve ever before read this column, you’ll know what I think about that, as well. But the assumption that every Muslim woman wears hijab because she had no choice in the matter is absurd. And if the government is really so concerned with protecting women’s rights, providing better access to educational opportunities or health care would be far more important than monitoring their personal expressions of faith – but I’m making the assumption that this issue is solely about “human dignity,” and not about policing the bodies of women in an ethnic minority.
Personally, I think most (okay, all) mainstream religions have institutionalized oppression in some way. But how is policing the garb of a group of women, however well-intentioned, anything other than subjecting them to a different kind of oppression? Trying to save them from one perceived patriarchal injustice by imposing another – does that make any sense at all?
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get dressed and go outside. Maybe I’ll wear a tank-top and shorts. Maybe I’ll wear the most concealing thing I own. Either way, it will be my decision, and one that should be afforded to everyone.
HALEY DAVIS actually isn’t big on shorts. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.