My friend Monica, Little Kropotkin on her blog and Youtube, brought up a really interesting topic that I think warrants a discussion, and that is to ask what place in our society does religiously mandated clothing (especially gender-specific clothing) have? Specifically we're talking about clothing that is to be worn in public at all times, and so that limits it mostly to the religion of Islam. Technically it's called for in Christianity, but I don't know of any denomination which actually follows that verse.
There are two questions to be asked here. The first is simple while the latter more nuanced:
1. Do these types of clothing, such as the hijab on one end or the burqua on the other, contribute to the presence of oppression against women.
2. How should modern society respond if indeed it is oppressive?
As I said, the first question is answered quite simply: Yes. Clearly mandating women cover themselves up because they are women is something that has in the past been mandated for either the express purpose or with the incidental effect of oppressing women. Even the hijab, which is basically just a head covering that leaves the entire face uncovered, sends the message that women need to cover themselves up because they are women.
What doesn't follow from that, however, is that legal action must take place to prevent this oppression. This is because it isn't inherently a tool for oppression. In other words, women may genuinely want to cover themselves up. To try to use legal force to prevent these clothing options pits the freedom of expression against the freedom from oppression.
It is the paradox of freedom that granting it invariably will lead to oppression in some other aspect. Here, we grant the freedom to wear whatever you want, but that invites oppression by allowing men to push women to cover themselves up in certain religions. They will convince them that it is what is best for them, and so long as they aren't being physically forced into wearing whatever costume that particular brand of religion mandates, the woman is acting upon her freedom to in this case obey. In this way, she is agreeing to be oppressed, in some situations. The only way to grant her freedom from this oppression is remove her freedom of expression. Thus the paradox.
Our idea of freedom is one that plays the long game. We allow terrible and even evil opinions to be offered and heard, with the understanding that over time only the best ones will survive. We don't remove the Westboro Baptist Church from the face of the planet because we know they will die out and to take action against them would lead to the slightly less offensive language being censored, and so on until we become the oppressors. We allow for, as long as there is no intimidation or fraud, for people to use coercion and persuasion to convince people to act against their own interests, knowing that such phenomenon will be short lived on the historical time-scale.
Luckily, we've already decided against banning these forms of clothing as a society. Only France has gone ahead with a ban. Even though it's been decided, since I never put out my official position on the matter and since Monica mentioned it I thought I'd throw in my two cents and discuss why we allow such things.