Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Clothing Choices and Tolerance

I was invited to a close friend's wedding a while ago. She asked me not to wear my black and white dress because those colors are not appropriate for a wedding. It turned out that I couldn't wear a red dress either because this was the color the bridesmaids were wearing. I was also asked not to wear green because the mother of the bride would be wearing it. Eventually, it turned out that the only color I could wear was blue. I didn't have a blue dress, so I had to purchase one for the occasion. At no point did I think that my friend's requests were unreasonable. It was her wedding, so she had a right to make them. If I didn't want to comply, I could decline the invitation and stay at home wearing a black and white bathrobe with red slippers and a green shawl, if I so chose.

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.


Izgad said...

There is a professor in Virginia who campaigns against shoes. http://voices.washingtonpost.com/college-inc/2010/10/barefoot_professor_preaches_sh.html

eric said...

Through I disagree with Zizek's brand of Neo-Kantianism (and he is only one of our greatest philosophers by default--Derrida and Rorty are dead), he pretty much nails it on the social observations. Here in the States, fundamentalists, teabaggers, etc., can be as nasty as they want to be to gays, women, Mexicans, or anybody else, but as soon as they are barred from their depredations, they cry that they are being discriminated against, and that they have every right to be white racist "Christians," etc.

I wish Verso would publish a "Quotable Zizek" (middlebrow, I know), which I could peruse without having to wade through the ponderous Lacan recaps or eye-rolling stuff on the "monstrosity of Christ."

SereneBabe said...

See my comment on your "please pardon our progress" post for my response.

The short version: keep government (laws) out of any and all forms of personal expression/speech. Making it illegal is problematic.

Clarissa said...

Heather: if it's done through public consensus instead of governmental involvement, that will be perfectly fine with me. As long as it's done.

Clarissa said...

eric: I couldn't agree more about Zizek! I also hope somebody would collect his profound statements on social issues and freed me from the ponderous, heavy-handed Lacanian Zizek.

I collect Zizek's good quotes, so maybe I will come up with a "Quotable Zizek" one day. :-)

sarcozona said...

I think women who wear the niqab, etc. in Western countries are often in a very difficult position where they don't have good choices. To wear the niqab alienates them from the dominant culture and may hold them back in their education, career, etc., but to not wear it means that they may lose their community and it can be dangerous for them as well.

I think it is the people and institutions that make women feel that they should be wearing the niqab that must be changed.

KT said...

Nothing more to add that I've not said before in the other posts, let me just say that I love this post more than all the other ones you've written so far. It grips you from the beginning and slowly works its way up into the points of your argument.

Well written and thought provoking.

Joseph S. said...

Interesting post, but are you saying the headcoverings should be banned? I don't think it's right when wearing them is made compulsory, but I also don't think it's right to ban them entirely on the grounds that it expresses religious fundamentalism. Some Muslims choose to wear burqaus, niquabs, or hijabs just like some Jews choose to dress according to Hasidic custom.

Covering the head in and of itself is not extreme behavior. There are many examples of people going to further extremes in the name of religion. For example, Christian and Buddhist monks will seclude themselves or practice celibacy, sometimes for their whole lives.

Wearing a hijab to school is quite different from genital mutilation or even wearing a swimsuit to a business meeting.

Richard said...

In this country clothing standards are set by social conventions that are based on what the majority feel is proper dress for different occasions. Usually these standards leave a good deal of room for maneuver and are enforced only by the weight of social approval or disapproval. If a Muslim woman wishes to walk down a U.S. street wearing a Burqa or Niqab, so what? If you start enforcing dress codes against either where does it stop?
On the other hand a woman who chooses to wear a Burqa in this country must also accept the social consequences of dressing in that manner. She would have a tough time getting a job, dealing with men, and being accepted as a member of community.
At a yard sale we held last year preparatory to moving to New Mexico, a woman in a Burqa showed up with her husband. I treated her exactly as I would have in an Islamic country. I ignored her and spoke only to her husband. She became clearly annoyed and stalked off. Well, tough, you either accept the consequences of dressing in that manner or wear Western clothes.

KT said...

And about religion, I think the Mormons are allowed to be polygamous in furtherance of their religious pracitices in this country. I could be wrong.

I don't think they'd lose their jobs or be ostracized because of it.

Richard said...

A fringe group of Mormons have continued to pratice polygamy, but the practice is condemed by the mainline Morman Church. It is also ill-legal even in Utah and polygamists are routinely thrown in the slammer for bigamy.

Anonymous said...

And what is your opinion of the niqabitches? Do they lampoon both stringent religious power structures and the objectification of women? Or what exactly are they doing? Is it acceptable? Discuss.

Clarissa said...

They are trying to make money. I don't think any deeper analysis is warranted here.