Adam Gopnik, "Freedom and the Veil"
Peter Watts, "Squirrel!" (which is more a rant about contemporary Canadian politics)
Zunera Ishaq, "Why I intend to wear a veil at my citizenship ceremony"
These articles are about Canada's struggles at the moment, but they are of course pertinent to many countries, including the United States. The personal rebut by Zunera Ishaq is a few months old but it is moving. If you try to ban a piece of clothing for the good of another adult individual, you are almost guaranteed to have good, intelligent rebuttals saying "how dare you try to save me from my own rational, well-thought out choices." Our only move, for those who think burkas and niqabs are bad ideas, is to say that no, you are making a bad choice that you are not aware of. You are not aware of how drastically you are being oppressed by that face covering. Which is of course why you are almost guaranteed to get push back when you institute such banning of clothes. On a similar note, such a counter-move should have force within the marijuana debate, and it does to some degree, but the wearing of dress has a lot less need for excision than the possibility of brain-altering and life-altering drugs.
The New Yorker article gets a couple of things wrong. Foreign women may wear a head covering in Muslim countries. Many times this is because it is the law or because of social evisceration. Conversely, as a society, we should not care about abnormal dress from foreign visitors, or socially ostracize such wearers. Obviously, we do have laws against public nudity but that is pretty much the minimum. As a good liberal society, and as an educated one, we should learn to shrug at dress, at least as far as aesthetics or social norms are concerned. That should be the hallmark of an enlightened society. Perhaps we try to fit into the norms of another society, but that does not mean we should embrace any kind of norms (of dress) in our own country.
We of course do enforce norms, but that is, generally speaking, at local levels. As a society we embrace pink mohawks as well as suits-and-ties, but that is not because we embrace either. We embrace a liberty of dress and style, at least at the widest level. Legally, we should embrace any manner of dress within wide limits, and for the most part we do. Socially and interpersonally we should see beyond whatever aesthetics tickle us and whatever social norms and experiences have shaped us. To cast judgment on others for dress is either an empty aestheticization, or its a power move of social normalization. Many of us, want little to do with the latter. I am more than willing to accept that you are a member of our society, and someone I do not mind having a conversation with or standing in line next to, even if you happen to like wearing green socks. That fact should have no impact on who you are as a person. Now, obviously, if you wear a t-shirt that says “I embrace Neo-Nazism,” I probably will not want to have a conversation with you, but that is because you are likely advertising a personal worldview that will clash with mine. We can and do read such underlying pretexts into dress, but little should hang on it. And certainly nothing that has us banning such dress itself. In the end, we need to rid the world of neo-Nazis, not t-shirts.
So, no, we do not embrace some normalized dress within our country and we should laugh at those who engage in such. And we should call Iranians, and others, idiots for not being more reflective of dress, social norms, and the development of aesthetic tastes.
This gets to another difficult part. There is oppression and social manipulation through dressing demands within certain Christian and Orthodox Jewish institutions. The argument over the niqab is often over the erasing of the face, but the line between it and the simpler head covering of some Christians, Muslims, and Jews is empty. They are clearly made of the same cloth. They all aim, for the most part, to desexualize females for fear of males.
Arguments against face coverings almost always slide into some (strange) belief about the sanctity of seeing another's face. But this claim, and the claim that it is some given cultural and social norm to see the face of another, is rather empty. There is not some society-wide special right or need to see the face of another in most interpersonal transactions. The article by Ishaq shows that such reasons are specious. There are of course certain needs for identification purposes that may be demanded. People should be forced to remove veils in such instances, which of course we can do respectfully. Ishaq agreed and cooperated with such.
Some general, all-purpose ban is not warranted for the reasons of “seeing the face,” and it is not warranted because of homogeneity of culture. It is not warranted.
Contrarily, the general wearing of niqabs or head scarves should be done away with. It is steeped in an absurd treatment of females as part of a larger structure of parallel institutions and norms of behaviors. That larger structure exists in many Muslim countries, as well as in any country or culture until recent times. Those larger cultural structures, which the niqab is part of, are being carried by Muslims into new countries. But we have a history, at least in the United States, at shrugging at these kinds of things when they exist in Mormon culture, Jewish culture, and other Christian cultures, as well as in many other groups. We are slowly undoing all sorts of inequities that were established in our cultures, including in character developments that blind people to the non-reflection of the social culture upon which they are built. But, for the most part, we are doing it in a liberal way and in an organically developing way. Where equality must be enforced, such as schooling, we do not allow cultural exceptions. But, for most of cultural practice and character development, we let individuals and families make their own way. School and cultural exchanges will push most individuals and groups into taking social stances and character developments that many of us regard as important. To illegalize niqabs while shrugging at organizations that deny females the right to hold positions of power (for unnecessary reasons) is to make an unnecessary, illiberal move. All sorts of institutional and cultural inequities should be removed, and for the most part they eventually will be removed through our reflecting on them, as well as through standard social dialectical movement.