Iran is implementing new guidelines for male haircuts. Not surprisingly, many Westerners love to ridicule such policies. One comment reads, “Defending archaism to the last. Islam’s finest achievement.” I wonder how those same people, who ridicule Iran, would feel if a family of proud nudists marched past their family picnic thus exposing their children to the basics of human anatomy.
While many in the West are keen to condemn more conservative societies for their strict rules, how many of them condemn African tribes for allowing women to go topless in public? If a woman can be arrested for doing so in America, we would think that there must be something morally wrong with it. If so, where are the protests against upper nudity elsewhere in the world? Not only do we not hear any protests but many Western men clearly enjoy seeing those women either in their natural habitat or within the pages of National Geographic.
Perhaps one reason Westerners feel so free to mock the Iranian haircut police is that, in the West, we have absolutely no restrictions on how one wears his hair. Here all haircuts are legal even if not considered appropriate for a job interview. Therefore, we can feel superior to the Iranians for their guidelines. We do not, however, condemn them for prohibiting women from going topless on the beach. I’m pretty sure that many Europeans condemn Americans for not allowing our women to go topless on our beaches.
It seems that every society believes it has the perfect balance between modesty and individual liberty. If individual liberty is what we are most concerned about, then people should be allowed to go about naked as they please. If modesty is our main priority, then each person would have the right to not be offended by what he sees and others would have to dress accordingly. Within this continuum there are many shades of modesty. Which one is the perfect balance?
In the past, before the age of easy travel, super highways, television and web conferencing, each community could set its own norms. Now that a “global community” is being forced upon us (and technology supports it) what are the rights of a community? When I lived in Jerusalem, I fully supported the inhabitants of the Mea She’arim neighborhood in their quest to keep immodestly dressed women off their streets. I still do. If a woman is insensitive enough to violate the dress codes of the locals, then she deserves whatever abuse is heaped upon her. But I do not support the Iranian government in any attempt to force every man, within their borders, to cut his hair a certain way.
Mea She’arim is very small. It takes only a few minutes to walk from one end to the other. Anybody who does not find the local restrictions to his taste is free to live elsewhere. Also, the Mea She’arim community has been there for a long time and they never forced others off their land to create it. Iran, on the other hand, is quite large. It is home to many ethnicities and many traditions. Islam was imposed by force and there are still religious minorities that suffer persecution. I do not believe there is any specific maximum size that a community must be in order to have its own enforceable culture. I also do not believe there is any specific number of dissidents who must live within it in order to disqualify it from having a unified enforceable culture. In terms of history, I do not believe there is any specific amount of time that must elapse from when the society was transformed (by whatever means) so that the current culture is legitimate. How many old people, who remember the old ways, must remain in order to prevent the new ways from being legitimate? There can be no set number. Like so many other things in life, sometimes a certain amount of arbitrariness is necessary.
Unlike morality, there is no “right” or “wrong” when it comes to modesty. Every answer is correct if it is right for the community and the individual. If the individual is in tune with his community, then there should be no conflict. If he is not in tune with his community, then he should move somewhere he would fit in better. Of course, if people raised their children to respect their own traditions, then there would be less need for individuals to move far away and families could stay together. So, in the end, a certain uniformity of convention (tradition) is important to the well being of family. Who could argue that family should be among our top priorities?