Theresa May, the United Kingdom Prime Minister, took office in turbulent times which just don’t seem to end. May’s statements and policies have raised eyebrows around the world, and another such moment came, rather recently, when she decided against wearing a headscarf during her visit to Saudi Arabia.
Unlike Saudi citizens (women), who are supposed to dress modestly by wearing abayas, burqas, hijab, or niqab, foreigners don’t need to stick to this dress code.
Although over the years various female leaders have opted to cover their head when visiting Saudi Arabia, Theresa May follows the line of Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama who have visited the state without any headgear.
This incident raises the issue of religion and culture v/s expression and liberty of women again.
Certain governments have taken measures to establish one over the other and to understand this issue we can take two cases: a) The burqa ban in France b) Strict dress code in Saudi Arabia.
The first debate started in 1989 in France, after three Muslim girls were suspended from a middle school for refusing to remove their hijab. This has now developed into a global issue of liberty.
The French ban on covering your face, which was passed in 2010, has often been viewed as an act of Islamophobia. It bans the use of helmets, burqas, hijabs, niqabs etc.
The policy extends the idea of French secularism of minority assimilation. However, it has been widely criticised as many Muslim women consider hijab as an integral part of their identity.
The counter argument is given by many feminists that this form of dressing has been developed to subjugate women by men and is a cultural way of establishing inequality.
Saudi Arabia follows Wahhabism, the monarchy’s official interpretation of Islam. The status of women across Islam isn’t consistent and varies depending upon domestic laws, interpretations of Sharia etc.
Wahhabism is considered to be one of the strictest schools establishing a strong patriarchal order. The dress code in Saudi requires women to wear the abaya (a black attire that covers the entire body) as Wahhabi decrees claim that a woman’s body is awrah (sexually provocative).
The expanding feminist movement in the country has challenged this idea and is fighting on various other fronts where women are segregated and discriminated against (education, religious practices etc.).
Today, the strictness with which these regulations are followed varies from region to region and section to section even within Saudi Arabia.
The examples above where the two states have taken diametrically opposite stands by banning or legally imposing a dress code drive us to one conclusion: a state shouldn’t dictate terms for a citizen.
The job of the state should be to ensure that the rights of its citizens are secured.
It should ensure that an individual has access to education, healthcare, opportunities, and is in a position to access his/her/their rights.
Such intervention by the state should be discouraged. Though this idea of a watchdog state might seem utopian as of now, but every individual should have the opportunity to live a life where they are informed to make choices for themselves, and the responsibility of the state should be limited to ensuring security to live such a life and subsequent choices.
To what extent one must cover one’s body should be the decision of that individual, and if a certain piece of clothing is essential to one’s identity then they should have the right to wear it.
This article was first published here.