Legislation on clothing and religious symbols in secular democracies should be based around the principal of maximum freedom, and no compulsion. This means, you can't force people to abide by other people's religious rules, and, people should be as free as possible to wear whatever they want. Therefore, people are free to voluntarily follow whatever religious codes their religion insists upon. This allows maximum freedom of religion. But there are limitations, and if people choose to abide by a religion that imposes clothing restrictions and this impacts on the practicalities of real life and employment, in general it does not become a requirement the employers must accommodate the strange codes of the world's various religions. It is not discriminatory to enforce dress codes, but it is discriminatory to create religion-specific legislation to allow certain people to bypass laws that everyone else has to follow.
Many dress codes in workplaces are not only sensible, but often increase the safety of the individuals and those they work with. If a person chooses to follow a religion that forbids them from following the dress code required with certain work, then, they should not do that work. There is no requirement for the demands of physical reality to be bent to the idealism of religious dogma.
If you indulged in some type of behaviour that didn't make any sense, had no merit, achieved a mystical goal and was also impractical, then everyone would conclude it was a superstition. The following news report from the UK's National Secular Society brings together these elements in a type of case that has been hitting the press frequently this decade:
“Muslim woman wants religion put before hospital hygiene rules.
A Muslim woman radiographer at a Berkshire hospital is claiming she was discriminated against because she refused to follow the national hospital dress code aimed at combating the spread of superbugs. She has now left her job.
The woman refused to follow the ruling that says that arms must be uncovered, either from wearing short-sleeved uniform or by rolling up the sleeves. This policy has been introduced to combat the alarming spread of MRSA and Clostridium difficile.
The woman said Islam teaches that women should dress modestly and cover their bodies while in public, and therefore the rules forced her "to choose between her religious beliefs and her livelihood". She had worked as a therapeutic radiographer for 10 years, and described her situation as a "continuous nightmare". She says she has been "emotionally torn about" over losing her job.
She said that she fears she may not be able to get another job, but has vowed to campaign against the NHS's "bare below the elbows" policy.
The woman, who did not want to be identified, said she wants to "prevent the policy from being universally applied, so other Muslim women do not experience the same trauma."”
Another serious case is military rules on hair length and facial hair. Soldiers must obey such norms for a range of practical reasons. Gas masks cannot form a tight seal with the skin if a beard is present, for example. Some might argue that we should let people adopt decorative facial hair at the expense of having an unusable gas mask, because they alone pay the price for their appearance. But in many industries and trades, this is not the case. Teams survive or fall on their combined strength; if a sentry soldier fails to raise an alarm because he was praying, or succumbed to nerve gas because his beard stopped his respirator from working, he has actually risked the lives of many of his compatriots.
As the Hospital example and military practical necessities show, there are many walks of life where there is a moral responsibility to obey dress codes, and if you cannot abide by them, then you should not be paid to do that job. It is not true that such dress codes are discriminatory or unfair: if anything is unfair, it is the demands of real life. Those who choose to submit themselves to clothing limitations due to their religion should be willing to pay the price for their own voluntary shortcomings.
It is an absolute requirement that security, such as at airports, is enforced without exceptions. It is absolutely discriminatory, unfair, unsafe and unreasonable that members of certain religions be exempt from security procedures. If people are exempt, all other passengers should be warned that the plane is compromised. If certain religious adherents wish to avoid security procedures, then they should hire private planes where their dogma does not risk the security of non-adherents.
I am of course mostly talking about certain Islamic prohibitions against women showing their faces to men. It is not a moral requirement that airports attempts to cater for the needs of all religious people who pass through them. People can choose to believe in crazy things, but, it does not then become the responsible of commerce to cater for them.
If someone does not wish to submit to basic security checks - such as looking at an ID card and checking the person is who it depicts - then those people cannot pass those security checks. This is not discrimination - as mentioned above - it is a much greater discrimination to put all passengers at risk.
In Belgium, schools were free to make their own rules on headscarves. In Antwerp, schools began banning religious clothing because of the problems they create with cohesion amongst their students. One of the schools that continued to allow them was the Atheneum. The headmistress was Ms Heremans, and at her school between 2006 and 2008 the proportion of Muslim pupils increased from half to 80%. A trend had set in where the Muslim pupils were becoming more and more withdrawn from normal society, even though outside the school they were evidently freer to dress more liberally!
“'At the beginning, I didn't see a problem,' she explains. But then, a number of 'very conservative' families moved their daughters to the school. By 2007 about 15 girls came to school wearing all-concealing robes and gloves, with only their faces showing. Ms Heremans confronted them. 'I said: 'You're stigmatising yourselves. You're breaking with society by wearing those clothes.' The girls replied that she was stigmatising them. Pupils began donning longer scarves. Others started covering up at school, even though teachers saw the same girls walking in the streets unveiled. When questioned, such girls said they felt uncomfortable at school without head coverings. In 2007 it proved impossible to organize a two-day school trip to Paris - a long-standing annual treat for 15-year-old pupils. 'Suddenly it was a problem for girls to stay overnight. Their older brothers had to come too,' Ms Heremans says. Most of all, an oppressive 'heavy' atmosphere hung over the schoolyard.
On September 1st Ms Heremans reluctantly reversed herself and banned headscarves at her school. [...] About 100 of the school's 580 pupils have left. Local politicians have raised fears that some may not get an education at all. On September 11th the Flemish education board banned religious symbols in all 700 secular state schools under its control, including the Atheneum. (Religious schools remain free to set dress codes.) It was the opposite of what Ms Heremans once sought, she admits. 'But now I feel supported.' Some older girls quietly thanked her, saying: 'You've no idea of the pressure we were under.'”
It was the simple case that the religious dress of the pupils was interfering more and more with the normal operating of the school; in these cases, it is for the best to do what is required to keep the school running well, rather than sacrifice the quality of education and socialisation. Also, the factors at play were undermining the freedom of the children to dress how they pleased so, ironically, banning a certain style of dress made pupils freer, not more restricted.
France became the first country in the European Union to ban the full Islamic veil, in 2011 April. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe. A similar law came into force in Belgium in July after a unanimous vote by MPs. They ban any coverings that obscure the identity of the wearer in public places like parks and on the street, on the grounds of security. Some MPs said that the full veil represents oppression of women, which is illegal on equality grounds.3
Such laws as this have two foundations:
Some governments have experimented with allowing religious communities to legally impose their own religious laws within certain geographical boundaries. The problem is, many moderate religionists don't want to go along with a stricter enforcement, but go along due to social pressure. National governments must protect individuals within religious communities from the community itself. In practice, it is very difficult to grant a community rights to run itself along religious grounds without indirectly authorising discrimination and prejudice. Minorities within minorities that are especially at risk include non-conformist members of the religion, homosexuals, women and others who are often the victims of traditional religious prohibitions. In Atheneum, the Belgium school, when the school finally changed its dress code and banned headscarves, some of the older girls thanked the head teacher, saying "you've no idea of the pressure we were under".
Wherever a dress code combines religion, culture and sectarianism, the compulsion to conform can transcend healthy limits. But likewise, the reactionary policies of law can go too far when they try to curb this problem, because it is also a matter of civil liberty that people be free to wear what they want as much as possible.
“The issue of the headscarf is complex and multifaceted. Many Muslim women may indeed wear a headscarf involuntarily, because of social pressure by family or even harassment by their peer group, but others choose to wear it either on religious grounds, as an assertion of Muslim identity or as a culturally defined display of modesty.”
"Muslims in the European Union: Discrimination and Islamophobia" by EUMC (2006)4
Some people just like to wear uncommon clothes, in strange ways. If you ban Islamic full-body covering, people would merely call it something else. You can't start banning clothes merely because they are unpopular with the masses; goths are unpopular but that is hardly grounds, in a democracy, for banning their clothes. There is a balance to be sought between avoiding mob rule where the masses punish minorities through direct or indirect discrimination, and progress, where intolerant and harmful practices are curbed.
Aside from goths, take the stance of BOEH (Boss of My Own Head), a Dutch feminist group that campaigns against rules on clothing. Their membership is diverse, including Muslims. Its members protest in a fun manner, wearing all kinds of daft things on their heads, from kitchen appliances to toys.2. Although their message is good-hearted, I do wonder how they would instead endeavour to keep children free of the unhealthy pressure that existed in the Atheneum School of Belgium (as discussed above). It seems that although their intentions are worthy, the practical realities of religious pressure make it necessary to sometimes ban some clothes in order to create freedom. Legislation against clothing should be kept to a minimum and that way, there need be no exceptions for religious dogmas.
“Jewish stories of angels (or giants) grabbing hold on women by their hair and the laws of St Paul in the New Testament make it clear that women have to cover their hair according to Rabbinical lore and Christian scripture and tradition (Genesis 6:1-2,4 and 1 Corinthians 11:3-10,13-15). In Islam, the Qur'an contains one set of verses that imply that women have to cover their hair, and one Hadith strictly enforces complete coverings except for the faces and hands (Qur'an 24:30-31 and Hadith 4092). Yet however important social morality is, these laws seem pointless. If people are moral, such rules have no purpose. If people are immoral, such rules make no difference. It seems that despite the occasional attempt to give these laws supernatural meaning, they remain outdated and primitive human traditions, encoded into the scriptures of male-dominated religions for their own purposes rather than for divine ones.”
Some religious or cultural clothes include keeping the face covered. Such a dominant look easily becomes a defining feature of that belief system. Face-covering has become one of the least tolerated practices in the West. People equate it with suppression, abusive male dominance and superstition. Critics of this form of dress point out the historical and theological connections to enforced female subversion and inequality, but apologists can find many women who choose to cover themselves, and who justify it with sociological commentary about, for example, not wanting to be treated as sex objects by men.
There are some basic behavioural human problems with such dress. Interpersonal communication relies heavily on body language and much of that is facial. Charles Darwin took photos of facial expressions from around the world, and surveyed people around the world asking them which emotions were being conveyed; the results proved that facial expression are universal in nature8. Not only are facial expressions recognised universally by humans, but we also depend on visual clues for accurate, meaningful conversation. Such behaviours are built into us genetically - blind children exhibit them the same way as sighted children7. Without the visuals of facial expressions, communication is hindered. It is certainly not right for officials, teachers or those who work face to face with customers, to be wearing such concealing clothes.
As discussed above, the appreciation of facial expressions is a proven subconscious and important part of Human communication. Its lack makes phone conversations and other indirect communication harder and much more prone to incidental misunderstandings and disagreements. In all public-sector jobs where employees relate in person to customers, all face-coverings should be absolutely banned. Likewise, there should be no legal compulsion for any commercial company to allow public-facing roles to be facially covered. Companies may choose to allow face-coverings if they want, but, it is not a matter of discrimination if they do not allow them, as such coverings negatively affect communication. If religious adherents choose to adhere by (voluntary) rules that require certain dress states, then, they no-one else is required to uphold the same rules. To live in a world where everyone has to accommodate everyone-else's beliefs is impossible.
Schools, state employees and officials who are all responsible for contact with the general populace should be given clear, universal guidelines as to what is acceptable with regards to appearance and good communication skills. Either you allow sectarian clothing that divides people strictly into groups, or, you do not allow it. Allowing it might present a more friendly face to clients, but might also limit communication with others. It is prejudicial; and in a democracy, wrong; to pick out certain religions. A policy for security might be that faces must be uncovered; and a policy for schools might be that no religious symbols are to be displayed, or that pupils and teachers must be able to see each other's facial expressions. A discriminatory policy is that Muslims can't cover up but chavs and townies can continue to wear concealing baseball caps and hoods. Rules should be phrased universally and in a religion-neutral way.
If policy is explained carefully and neutrally, many conflicts can be avoided.
“A 12-year-old Muslim girl wearing a traditional Islamic head scarf (hijab) at a state school prompted officials in 2003 to expel her, saying the head covering represented a religious statement in a secular school. This incident, and others like it, precipitated vitriolic public debate about the place of religious symbols [...]. When President Jacques Chirac supported the girl's expulsion - on the principal that religion should not be permitted in public schools - Islamic leaders protested that the ban was prejudicial, singling out Muslims for discriminatory treatment while Catholic students were allowed to wear crosses in school and Jewish boys were allowed to wear skull caps. [...]
The headscarf controversy had stated in 1989 with the first cases of Muslim school girls refusing to uncover their heads. [...] By 2003 there were 1,200 cases of veiled girls attending state schools, but only four were expelled.”
"Religion in schools: controversies around the world" by R. Murray Thomas (2006)9
After secularist laws were passed in 2004, the numbers of veiled Muslim girls dropped to 240 in France's state schools9. It was therefore revealed that three-quarters of the Muslim pupils could dispense with their coverings and continue attending school without them, even if they didn't like it. Most pupils are prone to disliking their uniforms; France has shown generally that strictness can overcome sectarianism and rebellion. Some have protested that Jewish skullcaps and Catholic crosses are still visible, and this text would urge that it is made clear exactly what is banned, and why. Ban face-coverings in the name of good communication, or ban all overt signs of religion in the name of public secularism, but do not discriminate and ban certain religious symbols, as that'll just cause continual resentment and is biased.
“Policies in Member States range from nationwide prohibition of displaying any religious symbol in public schools, to complete freedom of pupils and teachers to wearing any religious symbol. In between are policies that leave decisions to federal states or individual schools or that prohibit only certain religious symbols, while others are not considered as subject for regulation. [...]
There is growing awareness of 'diversity management' in Europe. [...] In most EU Member States there is now either government/legal encouragement to make cultural and religious allowances in the workplace, or many signs that it happens in practice at an enterprise level.”
"Muslims in the European Union: Discrimination and Islamophobia" by EUMC (2006)6
Some country profile excerpts will suffice to describe the general scene in Europe from 2006:
France: "In France, the wearing of signs or clothes by which a student manifests his or her religious beliefs is not permitted in public schools, except for 'discrete religious signs'. [...] According to the Ministry of Education, in the academic year 2003-2004, 1200 young girls came to school on the first day of class wearing a headscarf, but most removed it after consultation with the school. [In 2005, only half as many did so]. According to the report, the majority of pupils removed religious signs voluntarily."6
Germany has state-by-state legislation. Some states have banned headscarves, but still allow Christian and Jewish symbols.
Netherlands: "schools are allowed to prohibit religious symbols if they can provide objective justification as to why these pose problems. [...] A specific case concerned an Islamic school that turned down a Muslim female applicant for an Arabic language position, after she made clear that she did not want to wear a headscarf whilst teaching. The Equal Treatment Commission ruled that the school had no legal grounds for turning down the applicant."6
As a result of religious rules and dogmas on clothing, jewellery, accessories and hair there are some conflicts between traditionalists and the non-religious. It is a civil secularism is a battle between superstition and common sense, especially given the mythological and illogical nature of most of those inhibitions. There are no rational theological reasons why the creator of the universe would care about how we fashion animal skins and products of the loom, and how we choose to drape them on our bodies. Morality is an important social value. But with good morals, you remove the requirement for clothing rules. Conversely if society lacks morals, clothing rules are irrelevant. The reason, therefore, that there are such strict dogmas in some religions/religious cultures, derives from flawed non-divine Human sources.
The following quote is used on my page Why Question Beliefs?:
“Even apparently innocuous beliefs, when unjustified, can lead to intolerable consequences. Many Muslims, for instance, are convinced that God takes an active interest in women's clothing. While it may seem harmless enough, the amount of suffering that this incredible idea has caused is astonishing. The rioting in Nigeria over 2002 Miss World Pageant claimed over two hundred lives; innocent men and women were butchered with machetes or burned alive simply to keep that troubled place free of women in bikinis. Earlier in the year, the religious police in Mecca prevented paramedics and firefighters from rescuing scores of teenage girls trapped in a burning building. Why? Because the girls were not wearing the traditional head covering that Koranic law requires. Fourteen girls died in the fire; fifty were injured.”
"The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason" by Sam Harris (2006)10
The Koran. Translation by N. J. Dawood. Penguin Classics edition published by Penguin Group Ltd, London, UK. First published 1956, quotes taken from 1999 edition.
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]
EUMC. Published by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, Vienna, Austria.
Muslims in the European Union: Discrimination and Islamophobia (2006).
Sociology (1997). Hardback 3rd edition. First edition was 1989. Published by Polity Press in association with Blackwell Publishers Ltd. The Amazon link is to a newer version.
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (2006). 2006 edition. Published in UK by The Great Free Press, 2005.
Thomas, R. Murray
Religion in schools: controversies around the world (2006). Published by Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT, USA.