Can the state play fashion cop?
Maybe, when the garments in question belong to conservative Muslim women.
Canada, for one, on Monday forbade new citizens from wearing the niqab or the burqa when they take the oath of citizenship.
There’s a practical consideration here: the niqab is a veil that leaves an opening only over the eyes; the burqa is a full body covering with a mesh hole out of which one can see. Canada’s minister of immigration, Jason Kenney, said judges had a tough time telling if Muslim women wearing such clothes were actually reciting their oaths.
But Kenney also claimed his decision rested on more than logistics, calling it “a matter of deep principle that goes to the heart of our identity and our values of openness and equality.” One female Canadian Muslim disagreed.
The announcement came days after Canada’s Supreme Court heard the case of a Muslim women, the plaintiff in a rape case, who refused to testify in a lower court after being ordered to remove her veil.
Canada’s new law affects how women can dress in their interactions with the state but it leaves their private conduct in their own hands.
Some nations, however, are keen to enforce standards on public dress as well.
A French judge Wednesday sentenced a woman to fifteen days in prison for wearing a niqab in public, in violation of a French law passed in 2010. Spain, Belgium, Germany and many other Western countries have similar, if less severe, laws restricting the right to wear veils, headscarves and other garments.
Meanwhile, a city in the western Chinese province Xinjiang, which has a large Muslim population, announced on its website that it would forbid the wearing of veils and long beards (the message was later removed).
No US state has approved such a law but some have tried. Oklahoma, in particular, has become a center of controversy.
In 2004, an Oklahoma local school sent home an 11-year old Muslim girl– twice –for wearing her headscarf to class. According to the BBC, the school’s lawyer claimed “there is no federal right to wear religious attire” in schools. The Justice Department, citing basic 1st Amendment protections, quickly intervened and the school board was forced to give in.
Five years later, legislators in Oklahoma tried and failed to pass a bill making it illegal for women to take their driver’s license photos while wearing the hijab, a headscarf which does not obscure the face.
And in 2010, seventy percent of Oklahoma voters approved the “Save our State” amendment which would forbid state judges from using Sharia law in their decisions. Despite a federal judge ruling the law unconstitutional, Oklahoma’s legislature tried to pass it again, only to have the bill die in committee.