Challenge to Toleration in a Pluralist Society

The Birmingham Post (England), February 16, 2004 | Go to article overview

Challenge to Toleration in a Pluralist Society


Byline: Sarah Evans

Why do men wear thin bits of coloured material hanging round their necks? Why do they wear jackets and trousers and shirts all cut in basically the same style for any vaguely formal situation? Why, if one of them breaks away, does everyone read all sorts of messages into his non-conformity?

Clothes are complicated. In our society, where the single priority for only a minority is warmth, clothes are signallers of a great deal.

We are very keen on uniforms. School children wear them, unlike most of their European or American peers. Parents judge schools by their ability to impose a uniform, far more than what Ofsted tells them.

Particular jobs have dress codes -or uniforms - that are or aren't acceptable as passports to success.

Feminists have traditionally indicated their political imperatives through their clothes.

Supporters of environmental issues are identifiable by their attire.

My husband, who walked through our family room and read the first paragraph of this, commented it is a bit steep criticising men for ties when you think of the outlandishness of most of women's fashions. Perhaps outlandish but less regimented.

The immense significance of dress has reached a climax in France with a 21 hour parliamentary debate. The M.P.s voted with an enormous majority to ban conspicuous religious symbols in schools and state institutions. The catalyst for this has been the wearing of hijabs by Muslim girls in state, and therefore in France, secular, schools.

Some branches of all religions have put emphasis on clothes. Jewish skull caps and crucifixes worn round the neck have also been used as illustrations in the French debate. It is part of the stand-up-and-be-counted view of commitment. Because clothes are so important, we can make a religious statement, just as much as any other sort of statement, by what we wear.

In this country we pride ourselves on our multi cultural tolerance. It is noticeable how few and muted the comments in the media have been on what has been happening in France.

There is a straight clash between the values of equal rights for women and the understanding most people in this country have of the Islamic total or partial veil, which is associated lack of equal opportunities for girls: not being able to participate in out of school trips, competitive games, some curriculum areas, and not being encouraged to engage in critical thinking, decision making and independence. …

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