June 14, 2007
I’ve just finished reading a post by the Daylight Atheist which I’m not quite sure how to respond to. I totally agree that all religions have a lot to answer for in the ways they oppress certain groups or ideas – I find the negative attitude of certain denominations of Christianity towards homosexuality disgraceful, for instance. But I find this issue slightly more complicated. The Daylight Atheist suggests that:
Burqas, Hijabs and other such “garments oppress women and are an affront to human dignity. By design, they are dehumanizing and degrading, and remain so even if the woman freely chooses them for herself.”
This is a really difficult one for me, because while I agree with most of what is said, I think taking it to the point where any veil is dehumanising “even if the woman freely chooses them for herself” might be taking things a little far.
I think it’s certainly possible to argue that in these cultures it is not possible for a woman to make free choices about such issues. Perhaps societal pressures are so great that even a woman who thinks that she’s choosing it for herself, in fact, isn’t. But if you assume that it’s possible for a woman to make a free choice about these matters, then I don’t think you can judge her, her religion, or her culture for allowing her to make the choice. If I don’t feel like parading around in a pair of speedos, I’m sure you’ll allow me some modesty by wearing some board shorts and a t-shirt when I’m down at the beach. How is this any different?
Even today in the most liberal societies, we have certain modesty boundaries which are not to be crossed – try walking around the streets in a borat-style swimsuit (possibly not safe for work), and see what kind of dirty looks you get. The point is, while the exact location of the “line not to be crossed” might differ in every cultures, every individual should be allowed to choose what they wear (within certain boundaries), even if it might seem a little strange.
When a group of powerful individuals (e.g. religious leaders) make the decision for you against your will, however, we have a problem.