Government Restriction on Dress, Religion, and Control of Women

Aashna Kothari, Apr 30, 2024

In August 2023, France barred children in public schools from wearing the abaya – a long, loose-fitting robe worn primarily by Muslim women that covers most of the body [1]. Critics questioned how far clothing restrictions will go, as this policy compounds upon a previous 2004 ban of “ostentatious” religious symbols in public schools in favor of an increasing attitude towards secularism [2]. The Taliban arrested women in the Afghan capital city in January 2024 for wearing “bad hijab”, yet another restriction on women’s clothing in addition to those imposed on their education, employment, and access to public spaces [3]. In the United States, the Missouri legislature adopted a stricter female dress code that required lawmakers to cover their shoulders while the male dress code remained unaltered [4]. States all around the world are enacting policies around dress that subvert international law, which entitles every person to the freedom of expression, including clothing. Governments often enact restrictions on dress to promote a specific stance regarding religion, which often informs moral and ideological opinions on clothing and women. Despite these restrictions, women around the world are using their clothing as a means of empowerment, community, and identity.


Governments have concerned themselves with how women dress for thousands of years. Around the 4th century BCE in ancient Sparta and Greece, a group of male magistrates were appointed with the task of ensuring women were not spending too much on clothing, assuring proper attire, and promoting chastity among women [5]. The first official sumptuary law was the Lex Oppia, established by the Roman Republic in 215 BCE, in order to codify their attitudes toward luxury. The law limited the amount of gold women could wear to just half an ounce and restricted whether they could ride a horse-drawn vehicle within a mile of the city [6]. The magistrates also regulated dressing according to their station, because a man sexually assaulting a woman dressed in the clothes of a slave girl or prostitute was a lesser offense than sexually assaulting a woman dressed as a mater familias (mother of the family). 


According to the Pew Research Center, 50 of 198 countries and territories have a law or policy that regulates women’s attire specifically, whether that is limiting or requiring specific clothing. In Saudi Arabia, the dress code is based on Wahhabism, a form of Islam, and is particularly restrictive on women as they are expected to wear loose, opaque clothing that covers the entire body [7]. In contrast, France currently bans religious symbols in public and any face covering altogether in favor of an increasing stance of secularism [8]. A growing number of European countries are considering or have taken steps towards following France’s policy based on the idea of protecting secularism [9]. In Somalia, the Islamic extremist group al-Shabaab required women to be veiled. Kenya prevents girls from attending school if they are wearing headscarves or religious attire, which affects Muslim, Christian, and traditional African styles of worship [10]. 


The “consequences” women are subjected to can be traced all the way from the Roman Empire to the present day; they reflect the ideology that not conforming to a restrictive dress code shifts the blame onto women as opposed to the perpetrator. Punishments for women disobeying policies on clothing range from public shaming and refusal of services in Indonesia to imprisonment and lashes in Iran, or even whipping in Saudi Arabia and flogging in Sudan. The number of women who face social hostilities and live in countries where there are government-imposed restrictions on dress has risen since 2015. Women in 56 countries out of 198 nations face social hostilities and in 42 of those 56 countries, they were targeted for violating secular dress norms; in 19 of those 56 countries, women were harassed for failing to adhere to stringent religious dress codes. Muslim women in Europe specifically face discrimination, violence, and abuse for wearing headscarves [11]. In 2018, police arrested a man in Malaysia who assaulted a woman for not wearing a headscarf. A teacher’s union in Kenya reported that female teachers were required to wear hijabs, while in Liberia, women faced discrimination for wearing hijabs. Multiple women in Grozny, Russia, were attacked by paintballs for not wearing headscarves. In Israel, a group of Orthodox Jewish men chased and yelled at a girl because they deemed her “immodestly dressed”. An anti-pornography bill in Uganda outlaws skirts and shorts above the knee, which led to the harassment and assault of several women [12]. Across history and the world, widespread violence against women has been overlooked and forgotten about time and time again as people have become complacent in the clear trend of the harassment of women as soon as they don’t follow a rule that unfairly targets them.


In the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, people resisted sumptuary laws by adopting high-status attire to communicate that they deserved the same respect as aristocrats, corresponding with an overall shift towards individualism, self-expression, and liberty at the time [13]. According to current international human rights law, everyone is entitled to the freedom of expression, including clothing that expresses their beliefs, and governments have the responsibility to protect that freedom. However, communities impose stricter regulations on women's attire compared to men's, reflecting their underlying values. Those values indicate that states and actors are entitled to determine women's dress codes, exhibiting discrimination in the denial of autonomy and attempts to control the perception of what a woman should be. This furthers the dehumanization and objectification of women and their bodies, which “otherizes” women by creating a hierarchy that places women below men [14]. These restrictions not only perpetuate the ideology of women as inferior to men and prevent women from expressing their individual identity but also hurt women physically and socially for not adhering to the dress code through cruel punishments. The idea that women should dress a certain way or not wear certain clothing inherently sexualizes women’s bodies by attributing what a woman wears to her station, sex life, morality, capabilities, etc., which then impacts society’s reaction to her. Therefore, any restrictions on clothing consequently place blame on women for exercising their right to expression and autonomy. 


From the fourth century to the present, states pushed restrictive laws and norms onto women, setting back freedom pushes and female liberation movements around the world. In the face of being told what to wear and not to wear, women are constantly pushing the bounds of what is considered “acceptable," thereby shaping the future of not only fashion but also the very idea of what a woman is and should be. In this way, clothing acts as a means of cultural production; it conveys and presents their being and identity to society to make statements or challenge stereotypes [15]. From clothing worn by Suffragettes, repurposing men’s hockey jerseys to start a women’s team at Cornell, a design by Rachel Powell that captures rape culture, or a quilt that depicts Africa’s first female head of state, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, women around the world use what they wear as a form of protest and a way to overcome the limits on women that society perpetuates [16]. It is crucial that this historical and contemporary issue is addressed and government restriction of dress is recognized as a violent stripping of human rights that harms all women.


[1] Breeden, Aurelien. “France to Ban Full-Length Muslim Robes in Public Schools.” The New York Times, August 28th, 2023, sec. World.

[2] Langer, Armin. “The Conversation: What Is an Abaya − and Why Does It Cause Such Controversy in France?” September 2023.

[3] Associated Press. “Taliban Arrest Women for ‘Bad Hijab’ in the First Dress Code Crackdown since Their Return to Power.” US News. January 4th, 2024.

[4] Breslin, Maureen. “Missouri House Adopts New Dress Code for Women Requiring Covering of Arms.” The Hill. January 13th, 2023.

[5] Bond, Sarah. “What Not to Wear: A Short History of Regulating Female Dress from Ancient Sparta to the Burkini.” Forbes. August 31st, 2016.

[6] Julia Alexandra de Marly, Diana. “Dress - Government Regulation of Dress.” Encyclopedia Britannica.

[7] Mala, Alisa. “Countries with the Strictest Dress Codes.” WorldAtlas. November 15th, 2022.

[8] “Women’s Right to Choose Their Dress, Free of Coercion.” Amnesty International. November 10th, 2010.

[9] Human Rights Watch. “Questions and Answers on Restrictions on Religious Dress and Symbols in Europe.” Human Rights Watch. December 21st, 2010.

[10] “Restrictions on Women’s Religious Attire.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. April 5th, 2016.

[11] Villa, Virginia. “Women in Many Countries Face Harassment for Clothing Deemed Too Religious – or Too Secular.” Pew Research Center. December 16th, 2020.

[12] Bruce-Lockhart, Anna. “5 Countries with the Strictest Dress Codes.” World Economic Forum. January 7th, 2016.

[13] De Witte, Melissa. “What Dress Codes Reveal about Politics, Social Change.” Stanford News. February 10th, 2021.

[14] Aghasaleh, Rouhollah. “Oppressive Curriculum: Sexist, Racist, Classist, and Homophobic Practice of Dress Codes in Schooling.” Journal of African American Studies 22 (1): 94–108.

[15] “Fashion as a Force: Cornell Exhibit Explores Women’s Empowerment through Clothing.” WXXI News. January 21st, 2019.

[16] Aloi, Daniel. “Exhibit Chronicles Women’s Empowerment through Fashion.” Cornell Chronicle. November 27th, 2018.