The Guardian yesterday had an article about dress codes in Iran. In the summer, it seems, women seek cooler clothing than their hijab permits, and men gravitate toward shorts. All of these are banned clothing, which has led Iran to send out 70,000 police to enforce the laws.
Of particular interest is the reason: to “combat ‘western cultural invasion.'”
I have heard people dismiss this claim out of hand, but I think the charge of “western cultural invasion” is not that far off. When the US went to Afghanistan, some of the rhetoric was about saving those poor women from having to wear head garb. Of course, some Afghani women were quite glad about this. Others were mystified: why should Western clothing set the standard? The questions are ones that feminist scholars have often raised. I highly recommend Susan Moller Okin’s “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?” and the related essays in the book of the same title as a way of getting at the vast array of questions and issues here.
Catholic teaching, of course, supports the full rights and dignity of the person, because each person has been created by God: “Human activity, when it aims at promoting the integral dignity and vocation of the person, the quality of living conditions and the meeting in solidarity of peoples and nations, is in accordance with the plan of God, who does not fail to show his love and providence to his children.” So it seems that this would be one of the ways Catholics might argue against hijab, but if we reflect a bit more on our own clothing uses, it seems this is not quite so easy.
It is simply not the case, for example, that we think people ought to be allowed to wear whatever they want to wear, though this would be one of the arguments used in the above situation in Iran. Very few people think of walking around clothes-less as a normal practice, for example. Offices, churches, restaurants and other places all have dress codes, but even beyond that, we are socially formed to wear clothing that is 1) stylish (that which our friends approve of); 2) comfortable; 3) appropriate (how many people worry about whether they’re wearing ‘the right thing’?).
So another thing that Christians have long known is that we are formed by our clothing. In monasticism, not only do monks shed their “worldly” clothes, but they don habits. The term “habit” is telling: the habit shapes monks and their visions of the world as much as our Western clothing shapes us.
The difference is that we tend not to think of our clothes as reflectively as monks think of theirs. What cloth should it be? The kind worn by the wealthy, or by the poor? Should we wear habits at all, or dress in the clothing of regular people? Each reflective decision about clothing is meant to shape and form. Clothing ends up being a practice that is part of Christian discipleship.
Perhaps the difference between Iran and us is in the ways people are made to wear clothes? The issue is not really the clothing – though I think we ought to be more reflective about our clothing – but in the violent kind of coercion that we imagine 70,000 police engenders.