I don’t belong to a denomination that engages in any kind of religious dress for lay people, and all our clerical and worship robes look the same regardless of gender. So on one level I’m not in a position to comment on religious dress at all. However when you are an openly religious person you are sometimes called upon to defend the actions of all religions. So perhaps this is one of those times.
The most common objection to religious dress is that it is oppressive to women, and in some cases this is true. As an outsider it seems to me that a full body covering (such as a niqab or burka) takes away a woman’s individuality and personhood, and makes it difficult for her to express herself in the public space. However the majority of muslim women do not wear full body coverings, and many don’t wear any kind of head covering at all. Burkas are a form of cultural oppression more than they are a religious one.
Additionally, we must remember that there are many forms of oppression. For example, a hijab doesn’t prevent a woman from doing daily activities or engaging with people in normal social settings. Christian women in the west don’t have to worry about wearing a hijab, but what do they have to do instead? They have to conform to societal expectations about women’s hair. Depending on your type of hair and the social circle you run in, a western female hairstyle can be considerably more restrictive, cumbersome, and expensive than a hijab. Therefore it is not that muslim women are especially oppressed by religious dress, it is simply that we have different ways of oppressing women in the west.
For me, the key question is: do both genders have equally restrictive rules? If you look at groups like Mennonites, the Amish, or Hasidic Jews you see strict codes for dress on both genders. Each has rules to follow. Each would stand out in a secular crowd. While the male and female clothing may be different, people rarely worry about the oppressive garments of Amish women.
What is more concerning to me is what happens in some conservative Christian and muslim communities: a dress code that allows men to look relatively “normal” in public, but puts a religious brand on women. The men can follow secular expectations and blend in very easily, while the women must wear their faith on their sleeve, and accept whatever consequences come with that. To me, this is a sign that some religious dress is less about God and more about men. And when I say men I don’t mean people. I mean men.
I’ve only engaged in a religious dress code once in my life. It was when I visited the infamous Westboro Baptist Church for their Sunday service. The women of the church dress in typical western clothes during the week, but during worship they cover their heads in accordance with the church’s interpretation of scripture. I knew this was their practice and I brought a scarf in my purse. No one told me to wear it, I did so voluntarily. When the service was over and I spoke with the parishioners, no one commented on my observance. I suppose because sometimes the people most concerned about religious dress are the ones not wearing it.