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The Wrong Clothes

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc


Joan of Arc was arrested on charges of heresy. She was put in an English jail cell guarded by male soldiers. In her cell, she continued to wear men’s clothing to deter the soldier from violating her.

During her interrogation, when asked if she knew she was in God’s grace Joan said, “If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God keep me.” Try as they might, no one could get her for heresy.

In 1431 Joan of Arc was declared guilty. She was burned at the stake at the age of 19. What was her crime?

Joan of Arc wore the wrong clothes.

In the mid 18th century French people would no longer stand for the widespread poverty and malnutrition sweeping their country. They were critical of the power of the church and wanted freedom of religion. They revolted and after a long, violent revolution, France became a Republic.

In the the early 20th century a new law was passed to ensure the church would never have governing power. This new law was called laïcité; the separation of church and state. The French would always be free to believe what they chose.

If this were the case in 1431, it would not have saved Joan of Arc- she was not a heretic.

Today in France and elsewhere women are being tried in the name of laïcité. Like Joan, they are charged not with expressing heterodox religious beliefs- they can believe what they choose. Instead they are charged with wearing the wrong clothes.

A few months ago I had a conversation with a French woman who believed very strongly in laïcité. She backed all policies that prevent religion from entering the public sphere. In 2004, after years of struggle, an official law was passed banning muslim girls and women from wearing the hijab in public school. In 2010 another law was passed banning the burka and the niquab, a veil covering the face, in all public places including hospitals, subways and streets. Both laws were made in the name of upholding laïcité.

I said that this law was xenophobic and that it denies women the freedom to decide their own level of modesty.

She argued that it is not xenophobic but merely seeks to uphold French values. Laïcité is not targeting one group, it applies to all displays of religion in public spaces.

I thought about this.Then I asked what if I, a non-muslim, on a very cold day perhaps, decided to cover my neck and hair with a scarf. Would this be illegal too?  What if a man chose to cover his hair in public with a scarf, would he too be persecuted? Or is it only illegal if we also worship a dark skinned messiah?  

She said it is difficult for someone to understand who is not from a country who thinks this way. In France, she told me, they believe very strongly that religion has no place in public life.

I thought again. I cannot know what it feels like to have a country with such a history of blood shed in the name of religion. That is true. I think people should be able to dress however they want. I thought about what other people show their religion in public in France? “What about Catholic priests?” I asked.

She replied that under laïcité, they should remove their white collar while in public. She said that she hadn’t heard discussion of this probably because the collar is very discreet.

I thought again. I asked what about Buddhist monks? Their life style mandates that they wear a simple set of robes and shave their heads. I have never heard of an orthodox Jewish boy being asked to take off his kippa or cut his curls in the name of laïcité. Jewish men have been hiding the tops of their heads from the Lord when they go out door in France for centuries. Surely the shtreimel, the fur lined hat worn by some haisitic Jewish men is an obvious public display of religious affiliation. Why are these men not being asked to change their way of life and obtain new clothes in the name of laïcité?

She told me that the hijab and the niquab were being targeted because the women who wear them are usually being forced to do so by male family members. This law, she claimed, grants women the rights and freedoms they are entitled to as French citizens.

So for women to be free their clothes must be restricted by legal mandate? While men are free no matter what they wear?

The next argument could be that religion rarely favors women’s rights and the state should protect them- but that hardly works because policies in general rarely favor women. There are countless societal forces that influence the way women dress not to mention the amount of time energy money and heartache is spent on physical appearances. Are these women oppressed too? Should make a law banning  mini-skirts?

Freedom of religion has come a long way. In most places people are free to believe and worship as they choose. When will society’s view of women’s clothing catch up to that? Because these women are not being persecuted based on their faith. Like Joan of Arc, they are persecuted because they wear the wrong clothes.


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mccabe.melissa (Melissa McCabe)
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