The Religious Clothing Debate

The religious clothing debate has never been a discussion with easily agreed upon conclusions, and has been featured even more than usual in the public eye recently due to the controversy surrounding France’s ‘burkini ban’ over summer, as well as female non-Muslim chess players in Iran being told they could face fine or even arrest for refusing to wear headscarves at the female world championship earlier this year. With the United States having chosen a new president, and furthermore a having chosen a man who has been so widely accused of anti-minority rhetoric, the right to truly free religious expression through clothing and symbols, without any fear of discrimination, is especially significant.

A crucifix hanging in a car window

A recent facet of the discussion of religious clothing has been to do with passports and other official forms of photo identification. Having traditionally banned head coverings in general, unless it is for religious purposes (such as wearing a turban, nun’s veil, or hijab), passport regulation makers are facing criticism for what some argue is unnecessary discrimination against those who choose to cover their heads. Although human eyes may factor in what a person’s head or hair looks like, the more modern facial recognition technology widely employed today registers constant factors about a person’s facial appearance, such as eye from nose distance, rather than changeable features like hair. In the United States, a letter stating the need for a head covering in an official photo due to religious reasons is required from anyone wishing to cover part or all of their hair for such a photo. For a Christian, the only time head covering is properly discussed in the Bible is in Corinthians, where women are told to cover their hair if shaving it off would be shameful, (1 Corinthians 11:6). Additionally, many Muslim women interpret passages in the Qur’an about modesty to mean women should cover their heads in different ways, although the text itself never instructs behaviour, for example, explicitly requiring the covering of the face.

Discrimination in the workplace due to religious clothing and symbols can also prove a problematic issue for human rights; some minorities are simply statistically at a higher risk of being discriminated against to begin with regardless of visible expressions of religion. An employer can request that something such as a religious tattoo, like a crucifix, be covered, without too much backlash. Considering tattoos are not specifically instructed by the Christian holy book, being required to cover one when excessive tattoos might already be against the dress code of some professional institutions on their own is seen as a more acceptable request than asking someone to cover something not regarded as unprofessional, say, a bindi. In what some say was an extreme move, the highly secular nation of France has forbidden state educators and students from wearing Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps, Sikh turbans, and Christian crosses.

A possibly very detrimental effect on human rights that many were worried about whilst the ban was being debated, was the possibility of students not attending school as frequently as a result of not being able to wear religious clothing. With basic education affecting people’s lives for so many years after they have left school, feeling negatively about having to enter an institution dressed, or indeed not dressed a certain way was a topic very much influenced by the religious clothing discussion.

Even on an average Greater London street people wearing clothes expressing belief in the Muslim faith are frequently intimidated. Many argue that feeling too uncomfortable to leave the house in religious clothing is surely a community-wide issue. However, it may be worth noting that the problem can go too far in the other direction as well; contemporary philosopher Susan Okin noted that traditional gender stereotypes possibly associated with female Muslim clothing and discrimination against women should not be preserved in the name of protecting cultural diversity where an Islamic community may be a minority.

Feeling uncomfortable about judgement for leaving the house without particular items of religious clothing, such as a headscarf in a non-Muslim country, has been considered an issue for concern by the women’s rights movement. Even if an extreme solution such as putting a blanket ban on certain types of women’s religious clothing was the best solution towards empowering women, it would be nearly impossible to enforce to any effective extent – for example, sending police officers into the privacy of people’s homes could end up creating resentment and an exclusion mentality in what are arguably already ostracised groups.

A woman wearing a burqa in Afghanistan

An additional question people wearing religious symbols and clothing are sometimes forced to ask is how much priority should the right to religious expression be given over the right to not be discriminated against. Whether or not a woman wearing a headscarf is truly accessing free expression of religious decisions, or if she is being oppressed in some way, is a separate question. Of course, no one should be made to choose between two rights. But the question of which right should be given more temporary importance is significant; if wearing a face or hair covering, or any other very visible sign of commitment to one religion, leads a person to be unjustly discriminated against, it could sadly be for the person’s own benefit to reduce the priority of such symbols in particular situations that have long term consequences, at least on an individual level. This could never be said to be any form of solution to the problem of discrimination on a social level.

Overall, with hate crime clearly on the rise, the UK along with the rest of the world will just have to wait and see what the overall effects of various types of religious clothing are on the statistics for the harming of people’s right to religious freedom. .

If you would like more information about what constitutes hate crime and ways to deal with it, visit this link. Details about how to go about emailing your local council and asking them to stand against hate can be found here. Alternatively, simply using the twitter hashtag #AgainstHate can be employed to show support for Amnesty International’s efforts on the matter of raising awareness about identifying and reducing hate crime.

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