Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The National Dress Code

The politicization over what women should or should not, or can or cannot wear is nothing new in this or many other countries. In recent weeks the issue has swirled stemming from a Muslim woman who wants to take the oath of citizenship wearing a niqab. In case you are unaware the niqab is a head scarf that women wear that also covers the face, excluding the eyes.

Hijab on the left, niqab on the right. 

Our Prime Minister says that covering one's face while taking the oath of citizenship is contrary to 'normal' Canadian values. It's a pretty galling statement given the huge number of Muslim immigrants and citizens in this country who would theoretically share in defining those values. The hijab and the niqab in particular agitate Western liberal sensibilities. While Western countries often trumpet their support of freedom equally important are concepts like general legal equality and secularism. These traditional garments challenge all three principles in the eyes of some: Freedom - it is forced upon people, equality - it is imposed only on women to enforce modesty, secularism - it is a blatant and conservative expression of religiosity. In some places, Quebec and France for example, the liberal feminist element views it as an oppressive tool and therefore seek to ban them.

The rhetoric on how women dress is as tiresome as it is rote. Aside from basic standards of decency, the state should not be involved in dictating how women (or anyone) should be dressing, nor should individuals be compelled through intimidation or threats by their family members to dress a certain way. A liberal society is about freedom of action and freedom of choice, or have we forgotten that? It manifests in all cultures, but in North America is usually consists of insisting women where longer skirts, higher collars and less form-fitting items.

Having grown up in Brampton I recall the conversation more than a few times. I went to schools with a few girls who wore hijabs. Every once in a while someone would ask why they wore it and if they were forced to. While strictly anecdotal each of them always replied that it was a choice that they had made and that they liked it. These were young Canadian women making decisions for themselves. Obviously they came from a cultural context where that was suggested or encouraged but they made the choice for themselves, and ultimately have the freedom to change their mind if they decide it no longer suits them.

If the issue about the citizenship oath is that people cannot see the woman's lips move and prove she is giving the oath then we better prepare to make people give the oath one-by-one. Or have people who cover their faces give the oath in private so that they can clearly be heard saying the words.

I'd hope that the Prime Minister's comments are not solely motivated by politics. Canadians are feeling insecure and suspicious of Islamic extremism, perhaps the most since the years immediately following 9/11. There is little to fear, especially on the question of what people wear or don't wear. That is not where the country breaks.

People's personal fashion should not be a matter of public opinion. It should not matter what the broad public thinks on an issue of personal choice. That's what freedom is in a country such as ours.

For more on this topic I recommend Aaron Wherry's piece in Maclean's.

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