Imagine walking down the street and being stopped by a police officer. You haven’t attacked anyone, stolen anything or caused any harm to anyone, and instead you are being arrested for ‘public indecency’. Such an arrest would make sense if you were nude in public, but wearing trousers and a t-shirt, why are you still being arrested for ‘indecency’? This might sound ridiculous but is in fact a reality of everyday life for many people, especially women, across the globe.

In many countries, it is often respectful to cover up when entering religious sites; whether that be men donning kippahs (skull-caps) to visit synagogues or the Western Wall in Jerusalem, or women covering their shoulders when entering Buddhist temples. What makes some countries more notable though, is the use of law enforcement to control clothing, usually (but not always) based on religious values. What is even more striking is that in some countries, such as Iran, these laws are not enforced by the regular police, but by a separate branch of ‘morality police’ dedicated only to upholding these ‘decency’ laws.

Regarding this subject, most people will probably first think of Saudi Arabia, which is renowned for its strict law requiring women to be covered by the abaya (full-length black robe) in public. This law exists in the name of the country’s strict Islamic beliefs, but Saudi Arabia is by no means the only country where these laws exist. In Iran, the morality police are so notorious for harassing anyone not meeting ‘Islamic standards’ of dress or public behaviour, that now a smartphone app has been invented to help Iranians evade them. In December, Sudanese morality police raided a private party and arrested 24 women for wearing trousers. Although in this case the charges were dropped, tens of thousands of women are supposedly flogged for ‘indecency’ every year, with laws being applied arbitrarily. Sudan is a particularly problematic case, given that laws are implemented based on ‘Islamic values’, but Sudan has a large Christian population, for whom wearing trousers is normal.

Recently, an even more extraordinary case occurred in the Indonesian province of Aceh, the only province in Indonesia governed by Sharia law. In January, the police raided beauty salons in the province, arresting 12 transgender women. The police then cut their long hair off, forced them to wear men’s clothes and held them for 3 days of “coaching” to make them act “like real men”. It should be noted that being transgender is not illegal in Aceh, although gay sex is illegal and punishable by public caning. Transgender culture has long been widely accepted across Indonesia. Nevertheless, it appears that Acehnese police may now have changed their view, and there are worries that raids like these in this campaign, dubbed “Operation Anti Moral Illness”, may happen more often.

Burkinis have been banned in parts of western Europe. (Photo: Giorgio Montersino)

It is important to note though, that laws governing dress are not only being implemented in Muslim countries. Famously, France has taken the steps of banning various pieces of clothing such as the burqa and the burkini. These bans have proven incredibly controversial, with the French government being accused of Islamophobia for doing so. In particular, there seems to be the problem of look-alike clothing. On one hand, the burqa and niqab were banned under ‘anti-mask laws’ that also banned masks and balaclavas for security purposes. Therefore, the burqa and niqab do not appear to have been deliberately targeted for religious reasons. However, the burkini has been banned despite being almost indistinguishable from a wetsuit, which is perfectly legal. To counter this, some French mayors have claimed that the burkini is ‘unhygienic’, but given the lack of evidence to support this, critics of the ban maintain that the burkini has only been banned for Islamophobic reasons.

France is not the only Western country to ban clothing such as burqas, with full or partial bans also present in a number of other European countries. Clearly then, the policing of clothing is not simply a case of one religion subjugating women, as some people (usually those on the right) tend to argue. At the same time, it is also naïve to declare that all bans on burqas are Islamophobic in nature, as bans have even occurred in Muslim countries, such as a recent ban on an Islamic university campus in Indonesia.

There is one theme that we can observe though: women have been disproportionately targeted by clothing laws. Of course, there have been incidents regarding men’s clothing, but these are usually between individuals and organisations such as schools or sporting bodies. Very rarely are laws created and implemented to ban men from wearing an item of clothing of their choice in public – the only case I could find was the ban on ceremonial Sikh knives, which was obviously passed for security reasons. Perhaps the biggest problem we can see regarding clothing laws then, is that the bodies drawing up and exercising these laws are still dominated by conservative and largely patriarchal forces. This is especially the case for those laws that exist in the name of upholding ‘morality’.

There may be some hope for the future though. Recently, one of Saudi Arabia’s most senior religious scholars said that Saudi women should not have to wear the abaya in public. Given that last year a royal decree finally overturned the long-standing ban on Saudi women driving, we can hope that this is another law we may see overturned in the near future.

Tristan Fleming-Froy

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