What should we wear?
The recent controversy in France about what one is permitted to wear on certain beaches is not so much about dress codes as it is about religious freedom. Secularism is a kind of civil religion in France, and secularists can be just as intolerant as the followers of any other religion when their religion is allied to state power. The laws that prevented Muslim women from wearing a burkini applied just as much to Christian or Buddhist monastics, Sikh turban wearers, and perhaps Hindu loin-cloth wearers as they did to Muslim women. Fortunately a higher court has found such laws to be ultra vires, so they may soon be scrapped.
Matt Stone asks a more general question about dress codes on his blog — Where do you draw boundaries on dress codes? (Curious Christian):
What would a universally acceptable dress code even look like? In some (sub)cultures full body coverings including face coverings are mandatory for all. In some (sub)cultures clothing is optional. Two extremes on a spectrum. In my own culture jeans and shirts are the norm, with bearing shoulders and midriff common in summer in informal settings. Head coverings are acceptable but face coverings of any sort are seen as subversive and banned in high security areas.
Concerning face coverings, in Western culture there is, of course, the stereotype of the masked bandit, so people who cover their faces must be up to no good. But this does not apply to the French “burkini bans”, because in those garments the face is not covered.
But Western culture also has the tradition of the masked ball, and there are people who wear celebrity masks in public, which cover their faces and make them look like someone else. Are those illegal or frowned upon in Australia? And don’t American kids wear masks at Hallowe’en?
So where do you draw the line about face coverings?
In some circumstances they are permissible, but in others there is the assumption that someone who covers their face in a way that makes recognition difficult is suspected of having criminal intentions.
So should all face coverings be banned? Or just criminal ones? Or just religious ones?
Though face coverings may be part of a dress code, they are also a special case, and perhaps one should separate the question of dress codes from the question of face coverings.
It is also important to make a distinction between secular and secularist.
Secular is a descriptive adjective, while secularism is an ideology with religious overtones.
A secular society is one in the law does not impose any religious or theological view on people. The law is neutral in matters of religion. Thus a secular society can allow freedom in matters of religion. A secularist society, on the other hand, will seek to suppress religion, and curtail religious freedom.
The French towns that have sought to restrict the kind of clothing that can be worn on beaches have done so in the name of the ideology of secularism. The reason they give for this is that the wearing of clothing that reveals the religious views of the wearer could lead to public disturbances.
As is seen in the picture above, recently posted on Facebook, some Christian monastics wear distinctive dress. And many monastics also have dress codes and other restrictions for people who visit their monasteries. A secular society would respect such codes, but a secularist society might not. People can often be hypocritical in demanding that “freedom of expression” be allowed in other societies and cultures, which they would not allow in their own — see Pussy Riot, freedom of expression and Western hypocrisy | Khanya.
Is a dress code imposed by a monastery on its visitors comparable to the code imposed by municipal authorities on visitors to a public beach? Is there a difference between public and private spaces, and if so, what is it?
And this by no means exhausts the question of dress codes and their significance. For a different aspect, see Izikhothane: a new word for an old fashion? | Khanya.