Freedom of dress is part of our freedom of expression

PA. 10565761 Pakistan France Veil A supporter of Pakistani religious party Jamaat-i-Islami attends a rally to condemn the ban imposed on the burqa or veil in France (AP Photo/Shakil Adil)

I caught sight of a “burkini” the other day – that is a lady wearing what is supposed to be a sharia-compliant bathing costume. These costumes have not won universal approbation but this is Britain and we are a tolerant bunch, so if someone wants to wear a burkini, that is fine by most of us. And the same goes for the full face veil, the burka or the niqab.

There is very little chance that anyone will try to do here what has been done in France, namely ban the burka, as Andrew Gilligan points out in a very sensible article in the Sunday Telegraph.

On the whole it is best that governments do not decide what people can and cannot wear. Historically such legislation has often been aimed at the Catholic Church. Clerical dress is still illegal, for example, in Mexico, thanks to the anti-Catholic laws passed under president Plutarco Elias Calles.

If anyone should start a campaign to restrict the way Muslims dress in this country, then the Catholic Church should be vocal in its opposition.

However, this is not to say that the increasing use of the niqab should be a matter of indifference to us. Everyone knows that the way you dress is a sign of what you believe about yourself and your place in the world. It is certainly worth trying to understand what it is that veiled women are trying to tell us; it is remarkable that the politicians have, as Gilligan points out, not been interested in their views. It is also undeniable that the niqab and the burka are not Western dress.

But does non-Western mean anti-Western? And for that question to make sense, we need to work out what we mean by Western, and what exactly we mean by Western dress. After all, just as the Islamic world has its code of dress, so do we – though of course our dress code is not written down anywhere, and neither do we ever give it much thought.

The trouble with any talk of clothing is that it often degenerates into a row about public decency, without any discussion of the positive. Well, what is the positive point of Western dress?

We wear clothes, surely, to enhance our human dignity. And we never ever cover our faces as a matter of course, because the face is the sign of our individuality, an individuality that comes to us as a gift from the Creator. Indeed the face is called “human face divine” by the poet Milton. He counts the loss of it as the saddest thing inflicted on him by his blindness:

Thus with the year
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of even or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or summer’s rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine;
But cloud instead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the cheerful ways of men
Cut off, and for the book of knowledge fair
Presented with a universal blank
Of Nature’s works to me expunged and rased,
And wisdom at one entrance quite shut out.
– Paradise Lost (bk. III, l. 40)

To show your face to others is to give them an insight into the glory of Creation. To damage the face is to deface the work of God. To be denied sight of the face is to be cut off from the cheerful ways of men – there is so much that is comforting in the sight of a happy face. Is it too much to suggest that at the heart of the Western manner of dress is a reverence for the face, and that this springs from a religious impulse?

The other thing that underlines the Western approach to dress is its individuality – an individuality that reflects the fact that we are all very different, one size most surely does not fit all, and that we like and enjoy being different from each other. That we do not have a uniform and that we do not want one is surely an ethical position. Freedom of dress is part of our freedom of expression – again, a freedom given to us by God.