Activists in Paris call for liberty for Muslim women who wear the burka. (Yoan Valat / European Pressphoto…)
Every summer when the temperature goes up, people start stripping down. At the risk of sounding like a prude, I find it unseemly. Toddlers look cute in just a pair of shorts. Middle-aged men do not. Most women don't look good in shorts, period.
Yes, there are starlets strutting down Sunset Boulevard beautiful in little short-shorts, but they're the exception. I don't see them at my local grocery store leaning over the frozen food case. What I see reaching for the ice cream is just way too much. I'm not talking about age. I'm not talking about weight. I'm just asking for modesty. I don't want to be confronted with body parts best seen only by your doctor.
But America is a free country, and imposing any kind of dress code starts us down a very slippery slope.
I was hiking in Griffith Park with a friend and she told me how happy she was about the law in France prohibiting Islamic full-face veils in public. I was appalled. It's freedom of religion, I said, and freedom of speech. It's oppression of women, she replied. How do you know? I asked.
At that moment, two young women jogged past us in tiny, stretchy shorts and bikini tops. Nothing was left to the imagination. They were fit and attractive, but I found myself thinking I'd almost rather my teenage daughter wore a burka. One outfit is as extreme as the other. Both get second and third looks. Each conveys an image of the woman wearing it, a supposition that may or may not be true.
As for oppression, what sort of response will the girls in bikinis get, especially from men? To be ogled and objectified doesn't do much for women's equality. You could argue, as my friend did,
neither does a religion that requires women to be completely covered. But in a democratic society, America or France, people should be free to wear whatever they want.
Driving in the Fairfax district, I love to watch Orthodox Jewish families walking to temple. The men in their long coats and big hats, the women in tailored suits and wigs, and especially the little boys with curling payos and yarmulkes and the tassels of their prayer shawls flapping.
There is a Buddhist temple in my neighborhood, and the monks wear wonderful orange robes and shave their heads, men and women alike.
I lived in Utah for seven years, and Mormon "garments," worn under clothing, cover more skin than what most people wear in my Trader Joe's. I would find their nylon jumpsuits oppressive, but it's none of my business.
If we outlaw burkas, then we should ban all manner of religious dress, including nuns' habits and priests' collars. And if we're suppressing that personal expression, where will it end?
A 20-year-old college football player got on a plane in San Francisco reportedly wearing his pants so low his whole butt — in tight black briefs, according to one account — showed. I don't know how he walked to his seat, but it was a fashion statement: He must have thought he looked cool. A flight attendant took exception and asked him to pull up his pants. What happened next is in some dispute, but eventually he was arrested. He missed his flight, but he wasn't charged.
Just days earlier, same airline, an older man, white-haired, got on a flight wearing blue women's underwear, a matching spaghetti-strap, midriff-baring top, a cropped see-through sweater and black thigh highs and high heels. Airline personnel didn't say a word.
Now, it was the white-haired man's right to look ridiculous (up to a point, which no one has said he crossed), but the same right was not extended to the football player. Was it because the football player was black? Was it because he was young? Was it because he looked "gangsta"? The flight attendant made a judgment based at least in part on a pair of sagging sweatpants. Isn't that repression?
When does one person's "expression" become more important than another's? An 11-year-old was sent home from school for wearing a T-shirt that read "Obama a Terrorist's Best Friend." If another kid wore a shirt reading "Obama the Best President Ever," some might disagree, but who would prevent him from sharing his opinion?
At the mall some years ago I passed a young woman wearing a T-shirt bearing a vulgar message about President Bush almost impossible to explain to your 9-year-old. But I absolutely defend her right to wear it.
I think France is wrong. President Nicolas Sarkozy said, "The full veil is contrary to the dignity of women," but laws about what we can and cannot wear degrade everyone's dignity.
Yes, I wish my across-the-street neighbor would put on a shirt when he stands in his driveway to smoke a cigarette. His sweaty chest hair over man-boobs is a sight I could live without. But then I remind myself: Summer won't last forever.
Diana Wagman is the author of the novels "Skin Deep," "Spontaneous" and "Bump."