The recent hysteria in Europe over burqas and other full-face veils may have a salutary effect if it convinces both Americans and Europeans to think a little harder about their own parallel societies.
Evidence that it's hysteria is simple: Christopher Hitchens and other pundits weren't calling for unprecedented Western laws against certain types of clothing, say, three years ago. But starting last year, when French President Nicolas Sarkozy first proposed a law restricting Muslim veils, Hitchens jumped on the French bandwagon and said the U.S. should "consider banning the burqa."
Oddly, Hitchens and the other prophets of this new brand of Western liberty haven't recommended a ban on those draping, pastel frocks with ruffled shoulders that women in American polygamist cults seem to favor. The American public saw them on the news two years ago when the Texas government raided Warren Jeffs' polygamist compound near Eldorado, Texas, the seat of his Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
The dresses look innocent enough, but experts on American polygamy say women are trapped by them. Not only do the heavy impractical costumes evoke a bygone time; they deliberately shroud a woman's sexual charms, and they stifle individuality.
"You can modify people's behavior just by putting them in a certain kind of dress," said Carolyn Jessop, once a wife of a high-ranking member of the FLDS, to a Salt Lake Tribune columnist in 2008. "It is a uniform. You have nothing about you that's individual. You're just a part of a whole."
A woman from the FLDS countered in a letter to the Tribune that her clothes were not some kind of oppression. "I am free to dress as I like," she wrote, anonymously. "I think dresses are romantic. They bring out the feminine side in me. Our bodies are sacred. And they are not to display before the world. That is the reason we cover them. Our motive is not isolation but simplicity."
But there's evidence that the FLDS pioneer style was dictated by Jeffs himself, down to a prohibition on floral prints. "He emphasized the need to be covered up from ankle to wrist," wrote another Salt Lake Tribune reporter, Brooke Adams, in 2007. "He pushed use of a certain fabric — polyester suiting — as the preferred dress material. Women were to avoid printed material in favor of solid colors, particularly pastels. 'The next thing you knew, everybody was wearing solid colors,' one woman told me."
The debate over this retrograde dress code parallels the burqa debate surprisingly well. The rights of women are at stake. The defense of modesty is mentioned. It's not always clear whether women wear the clothes willingly, and — most important — the women who wear them make up a ridiculously small minority.
Yet no Western pundits have argued for for a law against fundamentalist Mormon dress.
Perhaps the crucial difference is the Muslim habit of covering a woman's face. And maybe it's true that Westerners need to show no more tolerance of veils than, say, Turkey or Tunisia, where women have to show their faces in specific public situations, from the university classroom to a courtroom. But it's pompous to argue that legislating a woman's clothes will "liberate" her, especially if you're unwilling to free her sisters in other faiths.
Some laws will liberate women from oppressive home lives. Burqas in Europe overlap with polygamy, like the pioneer dresses in America, and a French legislator named Damien Meslot has now proposed a change to his nation's welfare law that will deny benefits to polygamous families. The change is a single line: "Where the person having charge of children is said to be living in a state of polygamy by the authorities liable for family benefits, the right to family benefits may not be exercised."
This could work well in conjunction with France's "decohabitation" program, which helps move women out of polygamous families into apartments of their own (with their kids). When it started, in 1993, decohabitation was a ham-handed practice that broke up families by force. But it improved after 2001, when French officials focused on "providing women with the means to exit polygamous households if they so wish," according to human rights observer Mairead Enright — "for instance, through the provision of housing and appropriate training."
Those are serious laws, for thorny and specific situations. The burqa bans aren't.