Let me say straight off that I think all women (and men) should be able to wear whatever they deem appropriate without being derided, spat at, persecuted by comments or attacked either verbally or physically. I deeply respect my Muslim sisters who wear the hijab and I understand that it is worn for many reasons including as a sign of obedience to Allah. It is something which is central to faith and self respect and signifies modesty and a belief that the personality should shine through rather than allowing a woman to be judged by her natural appearance. (Of course, she still has an appearance when wearing the hijab and in fact her sexuality does not disappear but is presented differently.) There are many different interpretations within Islam of the exact significance of the wearing of the hijab. Most of the Muslim women I know say that they choose freely to wear it.
However, I do see some latent dangers in communities understanding the wearing of particular types of dress as directly related to a person's identity in the eyes of God or the Divine. There is, I believe, no 'ontological' or absolute religious reason for dressing in a particular way. As a Christian, I always wear a cross and, as a priest, I often wear a dog collar and special robes or vestments. I'm proud to do so as a way of showing the world that I am a Christian. Some of these clothes have deep spiritual significance that links me into the whole Christian tradition and into the community of believers today. But I understand these forms of dress, while very significant, as cultural expressions of my faith. The wearing of them does not, of itself, make me more or less pleasing to God, more or less holy, or more or less connected to the Divine. It is a means of saying to the culture I inhabit, 'I'm a Christian' and perhaps, 'I'm a particular kind of Christian.' And the clothes themselves are a means of reminding myself about certain precious beliefs and behaviours. The wearing of religious clothing is fine until it becomes an absolute requirement that allows one group control or coercive power over another. Religions that put what a person wears on the same level as how God sees them or how that person relates to the Divine are in grave danger of foisting the cultural norms of one age, place or group onto another time, place or group in inappropriate ways.
- Yes to all people being able to wear what they believe their faith requires of them without fear of ridicule or persecution.
- Yes to the adjustments we need to make in a multi-faith and multi-cultural society in order for this to happen.
- Yes to the sense of modesty and self respect that many Muslim women say the wearing of the hijab brings.
- No to forms of dress that effectively curtail a person's ability to engage in their culture in a safe and meaningful way.
- No to forms of dress that diminish, belittle or restrict a person.
- No to forms of dress that are imposed without the full consent of the person wearing them or through subtle pressure.
(And please take those last two bullet points as as much comments on western European dress as on traditional Islamic dress.)