Clothing choices are regulated in Western societies all the time. I have to attend the Dean's reception on Thursday. Do you think I can show up in my swim-suit? The Dean is Venezuelan; could I arrive wearing a T-shirt saying "Bolivar sucks dick"? The Dean's wife is from Catalonia; should I put on a blouse that says "Aquí no se ladra, aquí se habla el idioma del Imperio" ("Here we don't bark, here we speak the language of the Spanish Empire," a sentence that was used during Franco's dictatorship to discriminate against Catalonians)? If I practice my freedom to make these clothing choices, how long do you think I will stay employed? Do you think anybody will feel compelled to tolerate me much?
We all realize that showing up for a serious job interview in a beach dress or a Bermuda shorts will mean we can say good-bye to that prospective employment. We all accept that many companies have a dress code and if we don't want to observe it, we should look for a job elsewhere. Nobody wears flip-flops to the opera nor jeans to a wedding. Everybody is comfortable putting the words "Black-tie event" on invitations. But somehow niqabs, burqas and other forms of attire that signal female subjection don't qualify for the same kind of scrutiny.
"Oh no," people start squeaking immediately when they hear this argument. "This isn't about clothing choices. It's about religion. We respect the right of people to practice their religion freely and as they see fit." Really, though? Then how about polygamy? Has that suddenly become legal in the US? How about female genital mutilation? Many people see it as part of their religious practices. Should we make it legal here, too? Unless you are in favor of legalizing these religious practices in this country, there is no logical argument you can offer for the defense of the niqab on religious grounds. Especially since there are mullahs who are declaring fatwahs against the niqab on the grounds that it has nothing to do with Islam.
So if the defense of burqas and niqabs both as a clothing choice and as a religious practice is gone, then what's left? Why do some people start screaming tolerance the moment these clothing choices are mentioned? I'll tell you what's left: contempt and the desire for self-aggrandisement.
Historically, the main argument used to prevent women from voting, working and being self-sufficient was that it would be too much of a burden for these feeble, little things. Men didn't see women as valid human beings, so they couldn't imagine women having the same rights and bearing the same responsibilities as the only real humans, i.e. men. This is exactly how some Western liberals view Muslims. "Poor things, how can they be expected to understand such complex and lofty things as tolerance and women's rights," they think. This allows these liberals to feel good about their own "tolerance" while condescending to the poor, burqa-wearing savages. Slavoj Zizek, one of the greatest philosophers of our times, wrote beautifully about this:
We white Leftist men and women [should] leave behind the politically correct process of endless self-torturing guilt . . . [Western] politically correct self-flagellation is an inverted form of clinging to one's superiority. . . The positive form of the White Man's Burden (his responsibility for civilizing the colonized barbarians) is thus merely replaced by its negative form (the burden of the white man's guilt): if we can no longer be the benevolent masters of the Third World, we can at least be the privileged source of evil, patronizingly depriving others of responsibility for their fate (when a Third World country engages in terrible crimes, it is never fully its own responsibility, but always an after effect of colonization).So here how it happens that a white Christian woman Clarissa is held to a much higher standard in her clothing choices than a brown Muslim woman Fatima. I, however, believe that both Fatima and I are equally and fully human. We should both be held to the same kind of standards. If I can control my desire to wear clothing other people find offensive or even simply inappropriate, so can Fatima. And as for tolerance, I can never say it better than Zizek:
What lurks at the horizon. . . is the nightmarish prospect of a society regulated by a perverse pact between religious fundamentalists and the politically correct preachers of tolerance and respect for the other's beliefs: a society immobilised by the concern for not hurting the other, no matter how cruel and superstitious this other is.