Monday, 23 December 2013

Dress codes and individual freedom: Topless vs. Burkas

In many countries politicians try to rule about what is acceptable or not in terms of dressing in open public places. Frequently, legislators are moved by political and religious prejudices and fail to distinguish between the various dress codes and the distinct nature of public places.

Currently the debate is mostly about the use of burkas and veils by women. In the past similarly heated discussions were about topless, barefoot and mini-skirts. Then as now, many justify the prohibition on the grounds that its use offends other people´s beliefs and moral values. Namely, that they encourage the oppression of women or the lust of men.

Whether these are true or not (they may be true) they should not be an acceptable reason to limit individual freedom. Indeed, any offence taken is the result of one’s moral and religious beliefs. But, one of the basic freedoms is the freedom of religion. Therefore we cannot use one’s freedom to prevent other people’s freedom.

Acceptable limits to individual freedom may be universal or apply only to designated professions or places, and their justification varies. Nevertheless, one should only apply universal limits to individual freedom if it may endanger other people’s life or property, not its moral beliefs. For instance, the public use of balaclavas or burkas may be prohibited only if there are reasonable grounds to assert that they pose a threat to our security.

However, in restricted places it is acceptable that the operators of such places impose specific dress codes, such as uniforms for schools or the military, formal dress for some concerts and casual for others. The objective of such dress codes is to facilitate identification or to signal specific characteristics.

Humans’ dressing varies not only with income, tradition, climate or circumstances but also with the desire to signal specific messages. For instance, in egalitarian institutions without a dress code such as universities, it is often observed that finance professors dress formal while sociologists may dress in rags. The first wish to signal the financial relevance of their field while the later may wish to signal their left leaning politics.

Yet, there are some types of signalling that we may consider controversial. Among the most controversial is the signalling of mating desires. The arousal of sexual interest in humans is stimulated by displaying some parts of the body. Therefore, some types of dressing (topless, mini-skirts, etc.) can be designed to display such parts and be used to signal a mating mood. Here we confront two distinct possibilities. First, to argue that if society forbids sexual relations in public it should also ban the signalling of mating desires. The second is to argue that signalling is not the same as soliciting and therefore the public exhibition of such body parts should be free.

In general, the second argument seems more reasonable. Especially if one bears in mind that the interpretation of the signalling may diverge substantially between issuer and receptor due to tradition and personal circumstances. For instance, the male reaction to a topless female is substantially different whenever he is before a young or an old female and whether he is in the beach or in a night club.

So, we may conclude by saying that, under liberal principles, the ban of some forms of dressing in free public spaces can only be justified in the case of unequivocal danger to people and property. Prohibitions based on whim, fashion or religious beliefs do not qualify as legitimate restrictions of individual freedom. However, in delimited public spaces more restrictive dress codes may be applied. For instance, if, within his power, the director of a public school decides to ban mini-skirts or burkas he should be entitled to do so. Another completely different matter is the civilized expression of disapproval or dislike in relation to some outfits. In a polite manner we may criticise friends and acquaintances.

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