Why do the French enact laws forbidding Muslim women from wearing burkas while swimming?
The term burkinis was coined to describe the body-covering swimsuit worn by these women who are observant and wear traditional clothes as a sign of modesty. The French government attempted to outlaw burkinis as being outside the mainstream of French society. Not surprisingly, protests came from all over the world.
I have seen observant Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women completely covered while they took their children in a large wave pool near Disney World. Of course,our country would not think of banning such people from dressing however they wanted when entering the water.
The issue of religious clothing can evoke all sorts of reactions, especially critical ones given the numbers of diverse religions in our nation. Is it such a bad thing that people do not look like the typical American and choose to dress in religious clothing, which makes them stand out as different when compared to the majority of Americans?
Clothing is, for some people, an important identification of the religious. In fact, clothing can be a means of accomplishing several important goals. Clothing protects the modesty of women and men. It enables a religious community to exert social control. And it strengthens the community solidarity of adherents.
That is the purpose of the burka. In places like Iran, Muslim women dress in completely modern clothing but are required to wear some form of burka when they go out in public. Orthodox Jewish women will wear a special wig called a sheitel whenever they go outside. The idea behind this practice is that women are allowed to show their natural hair only to their husbands.
Some feminist critics claim that the purpose of these rituals is social control of women. Others contend that these rules for observant women protect them and send a clear message to aggressive men to keep away.
Observant Jewish men wear an undershirt with special knotted fringes attached to the four corners; this symbolizes Judaism’s commandments and is a way to remember to observe them. Wearing a head-covering at all time teaches Jewish men that God is always over them.
So the idea here is that clothing affirms the religious identity of the individual. Mormon men, for example, are required to wear special undergarments. Amish and Mennonite adherents wear special head-coverings and clothing to distinguish them in their faith. The powerful idea is that the distinct clothing helps the disciples of a faith to identify more closely with that faith tradition and with the community practitioners of the religion.
Sikh men often wear turbans, and Tibetan monks wear special robes. In a way, these kinds of practices fortify one’s faith. We may be speaking about social control, sexual modesty, or simply promoting greater solidarity with the larger religious community. In Chapter 21 of Deuteronomy, the Torah bans men from wearing women’s clothing or vice versa. Even clergy wear special clothing such as pulpit robes or ecclesiastical clothing for Catholic nuns and priests.
The decisions to wear burkas or other religious clothing is an internal decision. Religions themselves debate these issues, but the real question is whether we as Americans can cope with people who dress differently because of their religious convictions? Do such people represent a rejection of American culture or society?
Social change is always happening in America. Our diverse religious practices, including wearing religious clothing, do not mean that such people think or feel hostility toward their country. It does not mean that observant people reject American culture. It simply means that America has given its citizens the right to practice their religion — including the freedom to dress the way they dress — because of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Isn’t that what freedom of religion is all about?
Our history is full of examples of how early American Christian missionaries tried to change the dress of Native Americans. This also occurred when Christian missionaries came to Hawaii in the early part of the 19th century and outlawed the wearing of kapa skirts without covering breasts. They introduced the holoku skirts to be worn by Hawaiian women when they entered the missionary churches. A holoku dress is a long, wide, loose-fitting gown from the Victorian period with long sleeves and a high neck with the intention to cover as much skin as possible. Their purpose was to “civiliz” these native women whom the missionaries viewed as savages. American society’s sexual morality was in total opposition with the religious customs and dress of the Hawaiians.
Our religious values overlap in our attitudes about sexual morality and religious modesty.
Yet, whether were are talking about today’s Hasidic men who dress in the clothing of 17th century Polish nobleman or the Muslim women who wear veils, it is important that we step back for a moment. Think of the big picture and consider how wearing traditional clothes that do not resemble contemporary American clothing enhances religion in general in American life.