No woman in a burqa (or a hijab or a burkini) has ever done me any harm. But I was sacked (without explanation) by a man in a suit. Men in suits missold me pensions and endowments, costing me thousands of pounds. A man in a suit led us on a disastrous and illegal war. Men in suits led the banks and crashed the world economy. Other men in suits then increased the misery to millions through austerity. If we are to start telling people what to wear, maybe we should ban suits (Reader’s letter to Guardian UK)
This London-based reader’s letter to The Guardian newspaper last week about France’s recent burkini ban attracted quite a bit of attention and was widely shared on social media. Perhaps the reason it resonated with so many people is that it succinctly highlighted the main issues surrounding the controversial ban.
Firstly, it drew attention to the fact that, not only historically but still today, there is an acceptance of telling a woman what to wear that suddenly seems ridiculous when you suggest it be applied to male clothing. A law introduced in 2004 in secular France calls for the banning of religious symbols in schools but it has been almost solely applied to the hijab, and a 2011 law against face coverings is seen to be mainly targeting the burqa in wider society where it is claimed to be a threat to security. It has not been widely suggested that men in public should be prohibited from having beards or wearing a keffiyeh, turban or yarmulke. In fact France recently assured a concerned India that there would be no ban of men wearing turbans in public. It is women who are being scapegoated to mitigate the actions of men. Just as in some countries Islamic fundamentalists dictate the dress of women in order to temper the desires of men and their ‘uncontrollable urges’, so too France are punishing women in order to maintain “social order” (ie preventing xenophobic fights and arguments). Not only are the secular laws being applied most strictly to women, but specifically to Muslim women, with many people pointing out the hypocrisy that it would be unthinkable to confront a Christian nun on a beach and demand she remove her habit.
And this leads to the second aspect of the letter; the ridiculous suspicion and demonisation of all members of a group numbering well over a billion people. The obviously facetious suggestion that suits be banned because of the dire consequences of the actions of some in the professional and political world highlights the ridiculousness of associating clothing with damaging behaviour. It’s worrying that we need to be reminded that the actions perpetrated by one person wearing an item of clothing cannot be applied to all. The letter also highlights the distinction made between the perception of damage caused by Islamic ideology versus the harm caused by the actions of those in the banking and economic sectors. Undoubtedly more people in the US and Europe have been directly impacted by the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and austerity than by acts perpetrated by fundamentalists in the name of Islam. And yet there it is a climate of fear around Muslims that has been nurtured by politicians and the media, while those responsible for the economic meltdown have widely gone unpunished.
Finally, the example of the suit reminds us that we are all under societal pressures to present ourselves in a certain way for particular purposes. It is from an early age, with school uniforms, that ideas of uniformity are instilled within us. Many of us work in environments that require formal wear and there are cultural expectations surrounding our attire when we attend a wedding or a funeral. Most of us adhere to these social ‘dress codes’ so as to avoid offending people or causing friction with family and friends. Many voice the battle against the burqa as a crusade for the rights of women, forced to cover themselves up, but we should remember, we are not so liberal ourselves. We claim we have the choice but there are many examples in schools, such as the case this week at Hartsdown Academy in the UK, and in the workplace where not abiding by the dress code has consequences surrounding success and opportunity. Many women experience the discomfort of high heels, not to mention the physical consequences of wearing them, but there are still cases of their wear being enforced, such as the case earlier this year of the PWC office temp sent home for wearing flats and the Cannes Film Festival red carpet incident of the barring of guests not wearing heels.
Many people say they are happy to put on a suit every day, feeling comfortable with the image of respectability and efficiency it generally projects. Many women choose to wear high heeled shoes, making them feel elegant and sexy. And that is fine, but the key point in all of this is the element of choice. We are all subject to societal pressures around what we wear but we can choose to conform or not. In France, most women who wear a burqa, hijab or burkini do it because they choose to, with as much agency as any of us do while aware of social expectation and propriety. We can criticise cultures which enforce dress codes but should remember that we too are under societal pressure. The problem comes when this pressure and expectation is written into law and enforced by police and all elements of choice are removed. It should be obvious that a police officer telling a women to remove a full-body swimsuit is no better than a morality police member telling a woman to cover her head, and that is why France’s latest actions are so hypocritical and have caused so much justified outrage.
9th September 2016