Religious accessories bans are wrong: Which accessories are religious?

by | May 2, 2019

Today we’re going to do something a little different. Rather than pointing out how wrong religious accessories bans are, I’m going to pretend we actually decide to implement one. Let’s see how that works out.

Dramatic announcer voice: The year is 20XX, and in this grim future, the CAQ has managed to get a religious accessories ban to pass in Québec. Public servants who wear religious accessories at work are asked to remove them, and refusal will cost them their jobs. This new law has made Québec more free! And secure! All problems with religion have gone away.

That is, until… (dramatic musical blast plays here)… a teacher shows up to work wearing a headscarf. We’ll call her Liz.

Liz has been a teacher for many years. She is loved and respected by her students, and has earned numerous teaching awards for her work.

On this fateful day, Liz arrives at work wearing a tasteful, simple scarf wrapped around her head, covering her hair. Liz is not a Muslim, and has no religious reason for wearing a headscarf. Perhaps she got a bad haircut, or maybe she just didn’t feel like fixing up her hair today. Or maybe she’s just wearing it for style.

Before we go further, we should take a look at Liz in her headscarf to see what we’re dealing with:

[Photo of Queen Elizabeth II in a headscarf]
Lizzie in her headscarf

Does anything about that image offend anyone? Does it harm anyone? I think not.

And in fact, it turns out that Liz’s headscarf look is quite popular. Indeed, it’s even become an iconic look for Liz.

But the Powers That Be are faced with a problem. Clearly Liz’s headscarf is not a religious accessory. However, it is pretty much identical to a problematic – translation: Islamic – religious accessory that is banned.

So what do they do?

  • If they allow Liz to wear it, then Muslim teachers who are banned from wearing hijabs could justifiably cry foul. Or, worse, they could simply wear their hijabs, and when challenged say (truthfully, in many interpretations) that the hijab isn’t a religious requirement, and they have chosen to wear it for cultural reasons, rather than religious reasons. And there’s even more challenging arguments they could make, as we’ll see shortly.

  • If they ban Liz from wearing it, Liz and all non-Muslims could justifiably cry foul. It’s not a religious accessory, and it’s not offensive or harmful in any way. It’s inappropriate for the state to police what women wear any day, but this interference in particular can’t be rationally justified.

The crux of the issue here is that accessories aren’t intrinsically religious. Whether an accessory is religious or not depends on the wearer’s reasons for wearing it. A Christian might wear a cross necklace as a religious accessory, but someone into goth fashion might wear the same necklace just for the aesthetic, with absolutely no religious meaning.

[Photo of a woman in “goth” fashion, wearing a crucifix.]
Devoted Christian? Or simply enjoying an aesthetic?

And there’s no way to tell just by looking. Take a look at the woman pictured on the right. Is her cross necklace a religious accessory? Or is it a fashion accessory? There’s no way to know; you’d have to ask her.

In fact, if people want to protest the CAQ’s religious accessories ban, perhaps the most effective way would be for non-Sikhs to wear turbans, non-Jews to wear kippahs, and non-Muslims to wear veils to work. What are the authorities going to do? If a non-Sikh is wearing a turban, it’s objectively not a religious accessory. So how do you justify banning it?

(This, by the way, is how the hijab becomes a “symbol of freedom”. When a government bans the hijab, wearing it becomes an act of rebellion against government oppression. Don’t like the idea of the hijab symbolizing freedom? Well, neither do I. So don’t ban it. As long is it’s not being oppressed, it won’t be a symbol of freedom – it will be forced to exist on its own merit, and on its own merit it’s a stupid, regressive practice.)

So what do the Powers That Be do to make their religious accessories ban work? Well, maybe they’ll argue that even if you are not a member of that religion, a religion exists where that accessory is a part of the faith. Therefore it is a religious accessory in that sense, so it can be banned. In other words, it’s not just Muslims banned from wearing headscarves… everyone is banned from wearing headscarves because some Muslims consider it a religious accessory.

So, problem fixed, right?

Hell no. Quite the opposite, you’ve just made the situation worse.

Because now you’ve created a legal regime where if any religion claims a particular item of clothing as a religious obligation, nobody is allowed to wear it. There are a lot of wacky faiths out there with a lot of wacky requirements. You may end up with nonsense like sandals being banned because some foot-worshipping religion has made wearing open-toe shoes a religious mandate.

But even without imagining or looking for wacky cults, there are religions in Canada with large numbers of adherents – not piddling little sects – that have religious requirements to wear certain garments that we don’t usually think about, because they’re the “norm” in our culture, whereas religions like Islam and Sikhism are “foreign”. Examples include Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses… hell just a few weeks ago Mormons changed the rules to allow women to wear pants. Tens of thousands of Canadian women – at least; the numbers could be in hundreds of thousands – are required to wear skirts or dresses. They’re not allowed to wear pants, and they’re obviously not allowed to go out naked from the waist down (or from the waist up, for that matter). And these requirements are religious requirements, backed up by Bible verses like Deuteronomy 22:5 and Timothy 2:9.

So… what now? Are skirts and dresses banned? Remember, we’re now in a regime where if an article of clothing is required by a religion, everyone is banned from wearing it, even if they’re not adherents of that religion. (Even if we weren’t in that regime, would it make sense to ban only Pentecostal women from wearing skirts while other women can wear them?)

Oh, but it gets much worse.

Because on some level, every single article of clothing we wear is a religious requirement of some religion. Virtually every major religion in Canada has rules against “immodest” dress. They only vary in the details. That means that every single article of clothing is a religious requirement of some religion – often a major religion. So if we’re banning the wearing of articles of clothing that some religion requires even for people who aren’t members of that religion… then all clothing would be banned.

You can try to “fix” this by going back to the previous regime, where an accessory is only banned when someone is wearing it specifically for a religious reason – so if someone wears a headscarf for style, that’s okay, but if someone wears the same headscarf because God wants it, that’s not okay. At least that would allow nonreligious people to wear clothes. But now you’ve got all the same problems mentioned above that caused us to abandon that regime in the first place, plus more:

  • If you’re only going to ban an accessory if it’s worn for religious reasons, you need some way to determine whether someone is wearing it for religious reasons or not. In other words, you need government agents that test religiosity. Religious police and government tribunals to determine the “honesty” of one’s beliefs are things normally associated with regressive religious regimes like Saudi Arabia, not modern secular states. But that’s the corner this religious accessories ban thing has painted us into.

  • You still have the problem that people who are covering their body for religious reasons are being stripped by law. People who support religious accessories bans don’t seem to care when it’s someone’s hair or face being exposed against their will, but I imagine their tune will change when people’s legs, cleavage, or genitals are being forcibly exposed.

Look at where we are now. Government authorities studying religious traditions and determining if people are lying when they say they’re not practising them. Forcibly stripping people of their clothing with the power of the law. Turning the Islamic veil into a symbol of freedom. Criminalizing the Queen’s fashion taste.

How the hell did we get into this mess? All we did was start by assuming a religious accessories ban.

But this is what a religious accessories ban is. This is what it does. The only way you don’t end up with this mess is if you limit your religious accessories ban in obviously unfair ways – for example, by limiting it only to religious headwear, thus targeting only certain minority religions. I can say that the real motivation of religious accessories bans is to stick it to “foreign” or “un-Canadian” religions – like Islam and Sikhism – and advocates of bans will deny that until they’re blue in the face… but here it is; here’s the reality of what a religious accessories ban looks like if you actually take the idea seriously, and apply it honestly without a particular bias against certain religions. How can anyone seriously believe there’s not an underlying motivation to specifically harass “un-Canadian” religions?

One thought on “Religious accessories bans are wrong: Which accessories are religious?

  1. Jon. Waller

    If I lived in a jurisdiction and held a job where I were subject to this kind of legislation, I would start wearing “religious” accessories to work every day – one day a turban, one day a hijab, one day a kippah – and telling anyone who asked that I was an atheist, so they’re not religious accessories to me. Your article does a great job of explaining why.


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