Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Laws and customs vary by country, but in some places, Islamic head or face covering is either mandatory or outright prohibited. Here in the sunny US, the land of the irredeemable infidel, it is neither. We enjoy fairly robust First Amendment protections for most sartorial choices (with clearly-defined exceptions for obscenity and some school-related restrictions [no bong hits 4 Jesus]), and if you've lived abroad it's hard to escape the conclusion that Americans tend to enjoy more diversity of dress than many other countries. In my experience, I was struck by a certain uniformity in the year I lived in Lithuania, but tooling around the rest of Europe, I can recall seeing neither a single muu-muu nor a pit-stained wife-beater.

Clothes are one part functional to three parts social. Apart from protecting you from the elements of nature (including Uranium-238! Ask me how!), they're laden with oodles of status and loyalty signalling, with just enough wiggle room for individuality (37 pieces of flair). For most of the West though, specific religious signalling is either job-specific (cassocks, habits, stoles & al.) or ritual-specific (Sunday best, wedding gowns, funeral veils). The idea of devotion being reflected in everyday garb is alien to many Westerners. But to a great many faithful, the veil isn't oppression, it's piety.

I'd venture a guess that many Americans would agree that a Muslim woman's decision to wear a headscarf or a veil is more or less euvoluntary (depending on whether or not she was under duress at home) in jurisdictions that lack statutes governing what women may or may not wear. I think many Americans would also agree that in jurisdictions with legislation on the books (whether for or against), coerced clothing choices are, well, coerced.

Consider Helen (no relation). Helen lives in Birjand. She is a devout Muslim, and she wears the hijab as evidence of her piety. She then moves to Austin and continues to wear the hijab, having left none of her devotion to Allah behind. Since her proximity to Mecca has no bearing on her relationship with God, how has her private moral calculus changed? How can the decision be euvoluntary in one place and not in another? If anything, wearing hijab in the US is a stronger signal in the secular wilds of the West because it's euvoluntary. Right?

It seems to me that campaigns against Islamic modesty rules run the risk of cargo cultishness when they focus on symbols rather than on the pernicious problems of coercion and social control. A headscarf is not a truncheon. Conversely, piety shines the brightest when it arises from a euvoluntary covenant with the Almighty. Obliging women to cover themselves upon penalty of imprisonment robs them of the opportunity to honor Allah with the fullness of their heart. That is a terrible injustice to both women and to The Lord.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?