I have been mulling on this one for a while, and have not yet posted on it because there has just been too much comment on it all over the blogosphere and news sites in general. However, enough is enough.
Where I think the debate has gone awry is that issues of liberty, religious / cultural observance, aesthetics, day to day practicalities, manners, societal norms, feminist theory and semiotics have all been thrown together to make a steaming vat of gumbo. This is my attempt to separate out the crawdads, the catfish, the rice, the okra, the crab meat.….
Firstly, personal liberty
. I would take it as axiomatic that people should be free to dress as they choose in public, with the limitations on this being those of decency and direct incitement to criminal activity. Thus, outside of naturist camps etc, I will not be going to the barricades to defend that oddball who likes wandering around butt naked. Similarly, I could not muster any sympathy for someone arguing he or she should have the freedom to sport a t-shirt, hat etc bearing a slogan along the lines of ‘death to religious / ethnic etc group X’, or come to that standing in front of the ticket barriers at a station with a T-shirt with the text ‘the ticket inspector is on tea break and the CCTV camera is broken, so just vault over the barriers’. Otherwise, while common sense might not suggest it is a sensible thing to do, I believe that I should be entitled to the full protection of the law if I were a Hassidic Jew and wanted to walk along Queensway after dark on a Friday, or wear a Celtic / Rangers (delete as applicable) football shirt in the wrong part of Glasgow. Religious / cultural observance
. If a male Hassidic Jew wishes to dress like a C16th Polish nobleman or a female Hassidic Jew to wear a wig, so be it. Likewise with Islamic, Sikh etc wear. Other people might find it odd, and ask entirely reasonable questions as to why such observance is made, but within the public sphere, the choice of people to dress as they see fit trumps that of the rest of us to be disconcerted. I might not necessarily like those particular looks, but the same goes for crusties, people with faces that set off airport metal detectors, Che Guevara t-shirts etc etc. Day to day practicalities
. Motorcycle couriers etc are expected to remove their crash helmets when entering a place of business, because the helmets also act as a disguise. The same would go for balaclavas, and I believe the same should apply to Islamic face coverings. I could be wrong, but I believe one is not supposed to wear glasses when having a passport photograph taken. The same principle applies.Feminist theory
. The Sisters are right – the veil is a symbol of patriarchy, in that it signifies that the woman wearing it has rights subsidiary to that of her husband or father. If the veil on grown women makes me uneasy, when worn by little girls it makes me actively nauseous. There is ample evidence to suggest that when women are given the full support of the law and are bold enough to resist societal and familial pressures they are not particularly keen on covering themselves utterly. How women can be encouraged to dress as they see fit and not as their ‘masters’ would have them do is open to debate.
I expect to flesh this out a bit more in the fullness of time, but I think I have made a start.