Two articles in the Times of London caught my eye today. The first reported that District Judge Nicholas Leigh-Smith overruled an Asbo (Anti-Social Behaviour Order) specifiying that a young offender wasn’t allowed to wear low-slung trousers or clothing with the hood up. He was quoted as saying “Some of the requirements proposed struck me as contrary to the Human Rights Act.”
The second article recounted an incident in which a woman was fined for wearing a burqa in a post office in northern Italy. A city ordinance had been introduced in the city of Novara in January banning clothing which prevents the immediate identification of the wearer in public buildings. The article also reported that Belguim is well on the way to passing a national burqa ban, and that the French government is also drafting legislation to that effect.
At first this made me wonder how far Britain is from replicating such a ban, but in the face of that first article, it would be a very difficult legal position to defend. Personally, I don’t like the burqa. I don’t like it for philosophical reasons; I think on one level it speaks to ideas about moral contamination that I don’t agree with. (That’s only one level among many…there are plenty of books on this, and one little blog entry isn’t going to cover all the nuances.) But I also don’t feel uncomfortable around women in burqas; I don’t have any problem talking to them, sitting next to them on the bus or standing in line with them in shops. I mention this because several of my peers have expressed discomfort about sharing space with women in burqas. They seem to find it invasive.
I don’t like poorly-fitting trousers, either. Especially ones that fit so badly they prevent the guy in front of me from walking at a reasonable pace because he’s waddling along like a trying-to-be-cool penguin. Every time this happens I’m nearly overcome with an urge to pants them and run away giggling manaically. I’ve managed to resist thus far, however. And much like the burqa, I’ve no desire to ban ill-fitting clothing, though I may disagree with the reasons behind which wearers choose those articles.
While it’s easy to dismiss fashion as frivolous and superficial, clothing is an expression of more than just personal taste. Or rather, personal taste is not as individual as we think–it is relational. The way we express ourselves outwardly has a great deal to do with how we want others to perceive us. This reveals a lot about what we as individuals think is important–and what we think other people think is important. The very fact that people feel so threatened by raised sweatshirt hoods, low-slung trousers, and pieces of cloth that cover the face says a lot about what society as a whole thinks is important, and the tensions contained therein. A friend recently had an interesting commentary on conservative religious dress of any kind, which I will paraphrase (hopefully accurately): “It’s not that these things should be banned, but I think people should perceive them in the same way that tattoos or obvious piercings or radical hairstyles are–as obvious statements.” All of these things are counter-cultural to a degree; they are not perceived as average, and more than that, they are percieved as a very deliberate marker that the wearer does not wish to be average. Though the difference is that tattoos, piercings, brandings and such things have become more acceptable in, say, the past 20 years, and conservative forms of dress haven’t.
Leaving aside the Asbo youth for a moment, it is clear that banning the burqa will have a substantial affect on the lives of many women living in the communities where such bans are enforced. When questioned, the husband of the woman in the article said he would now be forced to confine her to their home to prevent the risk that she would be seen by other men. When asked to comment about this, the mayor of Novara said, “husbands must take into account that in Italy men and women are equal and freedom is a fundamental right.” I wonder what sort of support the mayor is proposing to offer to women being put in a position where they are forced to chose between their beliefs, family pressures, and, um, going outside. But I don’t wonder that much, because the mayor also said he is “not a racist. The racists are those who force their wives to dress like this”, which just doesn’t actually make any sense. There are plenty of good arguments against the burqa, but racism by husbands against wives? Somebody needs to sort out his -isms.
The whole thing made me so angry I actually started yelling at the newspaper. I’m about thisclose to getting an unreasonable number of cats and sitting on the porch yelling at children and Asbo youths to get off my lawn. (I don’t actually have a lawn yet, but watch out.)
However, upon some reflection, an obvious solution suggested itself. An alliance between conservative Muslims and Asbo youths focusing around freedom of dress as a basic human right of self-expression. They could win the Guinness world record in most square yardage of cloth per picketer. And they could have the blistering logic of Ellis Drummond, this week’s low-trousered spokesperson, on their side: “It’s like they’re trying to change the way I dress.” Don’t you let them, son! Now get off my lawn and go fight for some personal freedoms.