Saturday, October 1, 2011

Western freedoms and the right to show one's arse

In the 2000s there were a number of very high-profile cases involving European Muslim women coming into conflict with institutional rules for wearing hijab or niqab. In 2006, for example, there was controversy over a young Muslim teacher, Aishah Azmi, who was suspended from work in Britain for refusing to remove her face veil.

I saw bitter debates in online discussion forums over this and similar controversies, with some Muslims complaining about Western double standards as the West trumpets liberty while oppressing the freedom of its Muslim populations.

Yet these stories could be interpreted in a much less dramatic way, by simply comparing them with other conflicts over dress codes. My own secondary school had this all the time. We had quite a lax uniform policy, but boys were often getting into trouble for shaving their heads or wearing the wrong colour t-shirt under their shirts. A story like this would have the headline 'TEENAGE BOY IRRITATES TEACHERS TO FIT IN' - hardly front page stuff!

That's because without any context or wider narrative, an argument over a dress policy is a tiny, local issue. What gave strength to the controversies over Muslim issues with dress codes was the wider consciousness of Islam in the West after 9/11. Conservative Muslims used them to expose Western hypocrisy while anti-Muslim Westerners used them as evidence of Islamist segregationism in Europe. People with agendas stirred up the stories and turned them into symbols of a global conflict.

This is why nobody is paying attention now as New York's Albany fines its own citizens for wearing the wrong kind of clothes in public:
The first saggy-pants ordinance violator less than nine months ago started a cash flow to the city.

City Attorney Nathan Davis stated, “The Municipal Court advises that 187 citations have been issued and fines collected of $3,916.49,” since the ordinance went into effect Nov. 23.

The ordinance bans anyone from wearing pants or skirts more than three inches below the top of the hips, exposing the skin or undergarments.
There is no horrified wider saggy pants culture willing to use this as evidence of their persecution. Nor is there an insecure anti-saggy pants movement stirring up fear of those wanting to expose their backsides!

Without a grand narrative to turn this into a symbol of a wider conflict, the story slips under the radar and nobody cares.

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