Lifting the Veil

Time for this debate to focus on the real issue.

It’s about social mores having authority over individual freedoms when it comes to sexual modesty.

End of.

  • Yes some religions, and more to the point some sects of some religions (Islam for sure, but don’t forget sects of Judaism, Christian Amish and Orthodox and the like), apply more extreme traditions on what counts as immodest. Hijab, niqab, a whole range of head-scarves, hair-styles, unflattering dress and cosmetic codes, applied to (mainly) women at different stages of sexual and marital maturity.
  • And yes, some religious social traditions are more dominated by male patriarchal authority. In some extreme cases, that domination amounts to total suppression of women, but here the focus on female modesty is from the male hetero-gender perspective, and there are social codes for male dress too. The sexes are different – get used to it.
  • And yes, some less secular and counter-intuitively more religiously-tolerant secular societies (like the UK), privilege some religious over other social traditions. A price for tolerance.
  • And yes, in most “western” societies we see the eyes and face generally as part of trust in society’s interactions – personal identity sure, but more subtle than that. Some societies the eyes are a big enough window on the soul, in some we prefer the whole facial body language. (BTW as a counter-example I’ll let you into a secret, my secret stash of hard-drive “porn” includes a fair number of sexy-eyes-through-the-veil images – purely in the interests of research you understand.) But don’t forget, males in crash-helmets or black balaclavas entering some institutional contexts make us nervous too.

I heard a very interesting interview with a selection of UK Moslem women, with reassuringly varied views on their own “preferences” for head-wear, and takes on how much this had to do (if anything) with respect for their religious social traditions – I think on BBC R4 Sunday ? What was intriguing was how quickly amongst the diversity of opinion, the debate converged on “the woman’s right to choose” vs “authority”. Sadly the journalist involved didn’t pick up on the main point.

Yes, in free societies, individual freedoms are very precious, but “paramount” is fashionably over-used rhetoric. All our individual freedoms are quite rightly limited by appropriate social mores. Social mores that may have quite murky traditional histories, religious traditions or otherwise and with dubious if complex Darwinian origins and mechanisms.  Modesty of pubescent single females, and male rites of passage are common aspects of such moral traditions. Think school dress codes, think sloppy underwear-exposing dress fashions, think both genders.

Modesty is a good thing. If overly-modest dress gets in the way of interpersonal identity and trust, then both parties need the good manners to respect the other. I think this is one reason why even moderate but passionate Moslems get so frustrated at the individual freedom argument being added to the polarized anti-religion debates. The point about “good manners” is being missed and people with good manners may be too polite to point that out. Think FFS.

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