Religious accessories bans are wrong: Proselytizing by accessories

We don’t allow people to wear advertisements to work, and most of the time we don’t even allow them to wear statements of political affiliation. So why do we allow people to wear statements of religious affiliation? It’s a conspiracy! Religion gets special privileges and exemptions! It’s unfair!

Everything in the previous paragraph except for the first sentence is wrong. Explaining why is what this article is about.

The claim

The claim we’re dealing with is that religious accessories are “advertisements” for the wearer’s religion. That is, that religious accessories are worn for one or more of the following reasons:

  • to display the wearer’s religious affiliation
  • to publicly declare their beliefs
  • to promote the wearer’s religion; or
  • to encourage others to join the wearer’s religion.

If any of those things were true, then it would be justified to ban them on the job.

That’s because using your job as a means to advertise or promote anything (other than what the job requires you to) is not appropriate. You can’t use your employer’s platform to sell your own shit. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a public service job or a private sector job. It doesn’t matter whether the shit you’re selling is religious or not; you also can’t proselytize on the job; there is no exemption for religion.

Yet we do allow people to wear religious accessories on the job. What gives?

The answer is simple: Religious accessories aren’t doing any of the things mentioned in the list above.

Why do people wear religious accessories?

The crux of the issue here is why do people wear religious accessories?

Proponents of religious accessories bans assert that it’s to advertise their religion in some way – either to promote their beliefs, or to advertise their affiliation, or even as part of an attempt to convert others. Ban proponents insist that religious accessories are worn for the exact same reasons as political buttons, badges, or hats. The million-dollar question here is… why the fuck would we listen to their opinion?

I’m not being rude; I’m very serious about that question. Why would we ask people who don’t wear religious accessories for the reasons for why people do? That’s as absurd as asking for advice on sex and marriage from the Pope.

To find out why people wear religious accessories, we should be asking those who do.

So let’s do that.

Let’s focus just on Muslim veils, both for the sake of simplicity and because those are the accessories most often named as the most problematic.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that reasons for wearing veils are numerous and varied. It’s a deeply personal choice… which is why state interference in the decision is so distasteful.

Virtually all of the reasons given for wearing veils do not fall into any of the categories mentioned above. In that study every single woman gave their primary reason for wearing the veil as: it is an obligation in Islam. Every… single… one. And you’ll find the same thing again and again, everywhere you look. Even when asked why should the veil be worn, the number one reason given is [b]ecause Islam prescribes it.

So the claim that the only reason Muslim women wear veils is to turn their bodies into billboards advertising Islam is completely without merit. They’re doing it because they feel they have to to fully commit to their beliefs.

Even when they say they are wearing the veil to “identify as Muslim”, when you look deeper into what they’re actually saying, they don’t mean it as “advertising” their affiliation. They mean something deeper about making their own identity “more Muslim”:

The issue for the young women in this study is not that they had to veil but that they chose to embrace the hijab as a marker of their Muslim identity. In this sense, the hijab is self-prescriptive, a reminder to conduct their life according to the Muslim belief system. Wearing the hijab consolidated their awareness of themselves as Muslims and in their practice. As reported by some, ‘I have become more religious since I started wearing the hijab. I feel god is protecting me in some way as I was following my duty of being a good Muslim. I read the Quran more and get up early to do prayers’.

Two more participants said, ‘I do my prayers every morning, it’s a reminder that I am a Muslim’ and ‘I am more conscious of my Islamic identity, my behaviour has to match how I am looking as I may be a model for others’.

You see? It’s not about “showing off” their “Muslimness”. It’s about becoming more personally in tune with it.

Sometimes people do wear the veil political reasons… but once again, we need to look deeper to see what’s really going on.

Muslim women in North America and Europe will sometimes point out that in our nasty, colonial past their ancestors were stripped of their hijabs when being sold as slaves. Thus, wearing a veil today is a political statement… but not in the sense of “I want you to believe this idea I’m promoting”. Rather, it’s a political statement more in the sense of “I am not a slave anymore”.

Put that way, it really shines an uncomfortable light on the current fad for a veil ban.

It’s certainly possible, and even likely, that at least some of the many complex intertwined reasons an individual might have wearing a veil include purely “advertising” motives, like wanting to make Islam more visible and normalized, or wanting to tell everybody “I’m better than you because I’m Muslim”, or things like that. But the evidence is overwhelming and clear that the primary reasons for veiling are very, very personal, and not at all about advertising or promotion.

The bottom line, extending this to religious accessories in general, is that religious accessories are not worn merely as displays or forms of promotion or advertisement for their religion or beliefs. Religious accessories are worn for a number of complex, personal reasons, but primarily for reasons of conscience and personal commitment.

A practical example to show the difference

So how are religious accessories different from other symbols?

That can be a loaded question, because it is often asked with the sneaky assumption that religious accessories are treated differently from other symbols. They’re not. The same rules apply to all symbols.

What’s different is not the rules, but the result of applying the rules. And the reason why is because while religious accessories don’t get different treatment, they areusually… different in their nature from most other symbols.

And the religious accessories at issue in religious accessories bans are different in their nature than most religious symbols. A Muslim’s hijab is different in its nature from a T-shirt worn by a Christian that says “Jesus rocks”. So it is not simply a case that religious accessories get special treatment “because they’re religious”.

Let’s consider a plausible, real-world example. Let’s compare the Muslim hijab to the MAGA hat.

[A photo of Donald Trump wearing a "Make America great again" hat.]
A symbol of hate and stupidity. Also, the MAGA hat.

In practice, if two people show up to their job – public or private sector, doesn’t matter – with one wearing a hijab and the other wearing a MAGA hat, the latter is going to asked to remove their headgear while the former is not. Superficially, this looks like discrimination – it looks like the religious symbol gets a special exemption that the nonreligious symbol does not.

What’s really going on is more subtle – it requires more than a thoughtless observation from afar of superficial similarities.

What’s happening is the employer asks: Why are you wearing that?

From there, they get two very different types of answers.

  • As described above, the Muslim’s reasons for wearing her hijab are primarily deeply personal, and related to their private beliefs and commitment to them. They’re not wearing the hijab merely because they feel they have the right to put their beliefs on public display. They’re wearing it because it is required, in their view, to be Muslim. Without it, they’re not truly living according to their values.

  • With the MAGA hat, however, the person wearing it does not have any real obligation to wear it. They’re not actually failing to be a Trumper (assuming that’s what they are) if they don’t wear it. If they take it off, their beliefs don’t become any less real, or less a part of who they are (their identity). They’ll still have the same beliefs, and those beliefs will not be undermined or weakened by not wearing the hat.

Put another way, the Muslim woman might give answers about her hijab like:

  • it reminds me to live according to the tenets of my faith
  • it connects me to my faith, or to God; or
  • if I remove it, I am not being truly Muslim;

while the MAGA person might give answers like:

  • it symbolizes what I believe
  • it identifies me as a Trumper; or
  • it promotes the things I believe to others (either to encourage them to agree with me, or merely to normalize those beliefs).

The reasons the Muslim woman gives are all about her: her beliefs, her commitment to them, and her connection to her faith and the divine (these are all based on the primary reasons Muslim women give for wearing the veil found in the studies mentioned above). The reasons the MAGA person gives are all about others: it’s a symbol to tell others about their beliefs or affiliation, or they’re trying to get others to share or accept their beliefs (these are all based on the reasons why people think religious accessories are worn).

That is why the veil is different from the MAGA hat in this context. The veil is worn primarily for the benefit of the wearer; the fact that others notice it is unimportant. The hat is worn primarily for the benefit of others; the fact that others notice it is the whole point (it wouldn’t work, for example, if they turned it inside out or covered the text: the whole point is that others can read it).

That makes the MAGA hat about promotion or advertisement… which is not appropriate on the job. The hijab, meanwhile, is about the wearer being who they are… and you can’t strip that away from someone. So long as you have an employee who is human, they’re going to have a personal identity, and that identity is going to extend beyond their job – people are not meat machines that lose their identity when they show up to work.

Another way to think about it is to imagine a society where everyone wears the item. If everyone wore headscarves, whether they were Muslim or not, would the Muslim woman still have a reason to wear hers? Well, yes. Obviously. It’s still something between her and her god, regardless of what everyone else is doing. If everyone wore MAGA hats, whether they supported Trump or not, would the Trumper still have a reason wear theirs? Well, no, not really. It loses its purpose; it loses its meaning. The point of it is to advertise their beliefs, but now it can’t do that anymore, because everyone is wearing it, even people who don’t hold Trumper beliefs. Sure, they could still choose to wear it, but nobody else would care… and that’s the point. It’s lost its (shock) value.

Incidentally, the exact same analysis as above explains why allowing a Muslim to wear her hijab doesn’t mean anyone can wear a hijab. If there are uniform or safety rules that forbid headgear, then the hijab will probably warrant a reasonable accommodation (note: not an “exemption”; reasonable accommodations are not “exemptions”)… but only when it is worn by an observant Muslim. That inspires people who don’t bother to give any of this much thought to assume that if the hijab is allowed for observant Muslims, by “fairness” or “equality” it should be allowed for everyone. But that’s not how it works. When the same rules are applied to everyone – fairly and equally – you can sometimes get different results, because – shock of shocks – people are different. For example, a rule that no-one is allowed to use the freight elevator could result in able-bodied people forced to use the stairs while someone in a wheelchair is given a reasonable accommodation that allows them to use the elevator… but no-one could sensibly argue that rule isn’t “fair” or “equal”. Similarly, even in the presence of a rule that headgear is forbidden, a hijab could be allowed in the specific case of a Muslim is wearing it for reasons integral to her identity and conscience (though it would probably be subject to other rules, perhaps requiring the hijab is very tight and has no loose ends, or whatever)… but it wouldn’t be allowed for frivolous reasons, like that you simply like the look (or that you have a really dumb idea of what “equality” means).

In all of the above, the fact that the hijab is religious while the MAGA hat is not never came into consideration. All that matters is that the hijab, to its wearer, is part of their personal identity, while the MAGA hat is part of their public identity.

If you could find a nonreligious accessory that someone is wearing because it is part of who they are – it makes them who they are – then that accessory would get the same protection as the hijab. There are probably such nonreligious accessories (an example might be a particular piece of jewellery someone wears because it connects them to their heritage), but they’re a lot rarer than religious accessories… and even those are pretty rare.

Not just advertising!

There is another, even stronger version of the “advertisements” claim, where religious accessories are not merely declaring or promoting beliefs… they are actually trying to convert people!

This is a remarkably stupid claim, on so many levels. I mean, first of all, if a turban were meant to convert me to Sikhism, it’s a pretty absurdly ineffective way to go about it. Even if I thought it looked cool, those things are a ruddy pain to wrap. And in any case, I could just wear the bling without joining the cult. It’s not like they have a trademark on those things.

It takes both a worrying amount of “religiophobia” and egocentrism to seriously entertain the idea that the mere… sight… of a religious symbol is a threat to you (or your child’s) beliefs. I can’t imagine how fragile your own beliefs would have to be.

I mean, it’s like saying that merely seeing a Bible is equivalent to sitting through a sermon, or having a homophobic congregation wave hateful placards and shout slurs at you. If that’s what you truly believe – that the mere sight of the book is a declaration of belief or an attempt to proselytize – then the problem isn’t the Bible. It’s you.

Normal people can walk past a Bible without feeling shouted at or preached to. Normal people can pass a Bible with a shrug: “Hm, there’s a book. Oh, it’s a Bible. Yeah, Christianity exists. Meh.” Normal people aren’t threatened by the mere presence of a Bible. Neither are their beliefs.

And the same goes for hijabs. Normal people can walk past a woman wearing a hijab without getting any sense that that woman is telling them that her beliefs are superior, or that she’s trying to convert them. Normal people can pass a hijabi with a shrug: “Hm, there’s a person. Oh, she’s wearing a hijab. Yeah, Muslims exist. Meh.” Normal people aren’t threatened by the mere presence of her hijab, and neither are their beliefs. They may not like the hijab or its history or justifications, but they’re not going to feel challenged or threatened by the mere sight of one.

But you know what kind of people are threatened by the sight of a hijab, and the reminder that comes with it that Muslims exist? Bigots. Yes. That’s a fact. That irrational fear or hatred that gets stirred up at the mere sight of a hijab – the fear that they’re judging you personally, or somehow secretly trying to convert you? That’s textbook bigotry. It is no different from feeling threatened by the sight of a person of colour, or a LGBTQ person.

So if you’re someone who actually, seriously entertains the idea that someone’s religious accessory is not just about you, but that it is actually threatening you and your beliefs… you… are… a… bigot. Own it.

Summary

One of the few justifications for religious accessories bans commonly made is that religious accessories are just displays of affiliation with a religion, or public declarations of belief. Thus, they should be subject to the same rules as other displays of affiliation or opinion, which we don’t allow on the job.

Whether religious accessories are merely public displays or not should be determined by asking the people who wear them for their reasons… not by the assertions of those who want to ban religious accessories. You’d think that would be obvious, right?

When asked why they wear their religious accessories, those who do give almost exclusively personal justifications, such as:

  • their beliefs require they wear the accessory
  • the accessory reminds them to live their beliefs in practice; and
  • the accessory makes them feel more connected or committed to their beliefs.

When they do give the rare justification that superficially sounds like they’re wearing their religious accessory to make a public or political statement, it usually turns out to be something quite different.

To put it in the simplest terms: People who wear religious accessories are not doing it for the sake of others, they are doing it for their own sake.

That makes them fundamentally different from accessories that are displays of affiliation or ideological or political beliefs. Religious accessories are not “displays” at all. They’re wearing them for their own reasons, and the fact that you can see it is mostly just incidental. Indeed, many religious accessories are not visible, like Mormon magic underwear.

Refusing to acknowledge that religious accessories have a fundamentally different nature from accessories worn merely to show affiliation or ideology is simply wilful denial of reality. You don’t have to understand people’s reasons for that wearing their religious accessories, and you don’t have to agree with those reasons. But you can’t simply ignore them and substitute your own.

So even though it makes sense to ban employees from wearing articles that display religious, political, or ideological affiliation, or that advertise or advocate for religions, ideologies, or beliefs, religious accessories are not worn to do any of those things. And thus, banning them under that logic is wrong.

2 thoughts on “Religious accessories bans are wrong: Proselytizing by accessories

  1. You were doing so well until this week. You failed to cite their own scriptures, and what the scriptures say about why they should wear a hijab etc. I am not saying you are wrong, I am saying that people “mark” themselves as Christian, Muslim, to show internal compliance with scripture etc.

    • You failed to cite their own scriptures…

      Why would I? “Their” scriptures are bullshit. (For any version of “their”: Christian, Muslim, Sikh, whatever.)

      I’m not just being flip either. Scriptures in general are incoherent, hopelessly vague, and usually internally contradictory, and believers in practice don’t actually adhere to the majority of them. Looking at what the scriptures say is a waste of everyone’s time. That’s just apologetics, nothing more.

      What matters is what believersthink… the scriptures say.

      And to figure that out, we need to listen to believers… not the scriptures. Believers will tell us if their religion is misogynistic, or homophobic, or whatever… not the scriptures. Believers will tell us if their faith threatens others around them… not the scriptures. And believers will tell us what they think wearing a religious accessory is about. All the scriptures will tell us are the opinions of dudes who have been dead for a millennia or more. And who cares about them?

      This all should be obvious from the context too. Take the hijab for example: The women wearing the hijab are threatening to do so even in defiance of the laws written by men. And what do Islamic scriptures say about following the laws of the land? What do they say about women obeying men? Clearly the women protesting the veil ban aren’t really taking their own scriptures all that seriously. So why should I?

      I am not saying you are wrong, I am saying that people “mark” themselves as Christian, Muslim, to show internal compliance with scripture etc.

      Isn’t that what I said almost exactly (via a quote from a study)?:

      Even when they say they are wearing the veil to “identify as Muslim”, when you look deeper into what they’re actually saying, they don’t mean it as “advertising” their affiliation. They mean something deeper about making their own identity “more Muslim”:

      The issue for the young women in this study is not that they had to veil but that they chose to embrace the hijab as a marker of their Muslim identity. In this sense, the hijab is self-prescriptive, a reminder to conduct their life according to the Muslim belief system. Wearing the hijab consolidated their awareness of themselves as Muslims and in their practice.

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