It is amazing the things that we can choose to argue about or outlaw. This week in France Nicholas Sarkozy's center-right government will propose a controversial nationwide law making it illegal for women to wear the head covering, the burqa in public. The French have been discussing this legislation for a couple of years now; convinced that nothing in the Koran or Islam requires the wearing of this article of clothing, they are prepared to move forward (or backward, depending on your position).
The legislation is expected to pass the French legislature, thus positioning that nation for some explosive days since France has the largest Islamic population in all of Europe. The Economist (May 13, 2010) cleverly captured the heart of this issue by paraphrasing French philosopher Voltaire, "I disapprove of your dress, but I will defend to the death your right to wear it."
This issue is not, however, exclusively French. All Europe seems to be debating the appropriateness of women publicly wearing the Islamic clothing. A majority of citizens in France, Spain, Italy, Britain and Germany favor a total ban of this veil. Other Western European democracies are either proposing or considering the same kind of ban for various reasons.
Such legislation is an over-reaction to the increased immigration and birth rates of Muslim people in Western Europe; if successfully carried out these new restrictions will inevitably lead to more violence, suspicion and misunderstanding.
Most Americans have seen women in public wearing the head covering or even dressed in the full black body dress. Such clothing may lead some to do a double-take; it is certainly not your typical public fashion. But fewer Americans are ready to make public outcry over such dress. With our greater religious diversity and tolerance, only 33 percent of citizens favor such an outright ban.
Granted, even in our country, the wearing of the head covering or full body dress has not been without controversy, such as when women have tried (unsuccessfully) to have their driver's license taken so dressed or to testify in court in such apparel. There will always be limits that will demand exclusion of certain kinds of garb for reasons entirely unrelated to religious discrimination.
Nevertheless, I suspect most Americans are willing to be fairly tolerant about how people dress in public, even though we all have stories about "sightings" of people who were outrageously, inappropriately dressed. My guess is that most people could quickly name the top two or three most inappropriately garbed people they've ever seen. I further speculate that the inappropriateness of those situations had nothing to do with religious clothing.
Instead, the aggrieved situations probably involve outfits way too revealing, t-shirt messages way too crude, strange combinations of garish color and people who seem clueless to the meaning of "Shoes and shirts required." We are, indeed, a remarkably free-spirited people when it comes to allowing others to choose their public dress.
Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.