Above: police in Nice force woman to remove burkini
Some of the liberal and liberal-leftist opposition to the French burkini ban (eg in the Guardian) has slipped over into positive support for religious dress and “modesty” as a female virtue. This article argues that opposition to the ban should not mean offering any degree of support to religious obscurantism or misogyny.
By Theodora Polenta (very slightly edited by JD; this article also appears in Solidarity and on the Workers Liberty website):
On 26 August, the Supreme Court of France ruled against bans on the “burkini” by some south-of-France municipalities. The ruling was greeted with relief by women, by Muslims (including those opposed to religiously-imposed dress rules for women), and for the millions of women and men outraged by seeing four armed policemen on the beach of Nice publicly humiliate a Muslim woman in a burkini. The Court concluded that the ban is a “serious and illegal violation of basic freedoms”, and that local authorities may take such measures only if the burkini is a “proven risk to public order”.
The “burkini” is a swimsuit invented in 2004 by the Australian-Lebanese designer Aheda Zanetti. The big fashion houses saw the potential of a new “market”, and took it up. It is a swimsuit that covers the entire body except the face (unlike the burqa, which covers the face, and is compulsorily loose-fitting), and is similar to diving suits and other garments for watersports. While the diving suits have never bothered anyone, and the burkini has bothered few in Australia, where many wearers are non-Muslims concerned about skin cancer risks, some French politicians have branded the burkini as a major threat to the morals and values of French society.
For readers of Solidarity, the burkini will seem reminiscent of periods we want to leave behind, when women were forced to remain invisible and silent to demonstrate that they were modest and humble. Personally I find abhorrent any suggestion that there is something inherently wrong with the body and hair of any woman or any human being, or that anyone should be condemned never to feel the sun and the air on their body in order to be considered a “woman”. Or that to cover our bodies is the answer to the voyeuristic culture that objectifies women’s bodies and imposes elusive and sometimes cruel beauty standards. However, the burkini bans bring to mind the French army operation in Algeria in May 1958. In order to add pressure for the coup in France which would bring De Gaulle to power and block what the army saw as a drift to conceding Algerian independence, the army organised a demonstration by some Muslim Algerian women to remove their veils and burn them.
Moreover, the right-wing politicians pushing the bans are instrumentalising women’s bodies and rights as a diversion and a pretext for divisive policies. Banning the burkini as “associated with terrorism” is an invention based on Islamophobia, racism and sexism. The bans are part of the official response to the murderous attacks by Daesh in Paris in 2015 and in Nice this summer. In the name of anti-terrorism, instead of promoting more equality and democracy, the government is fortifying a permanent state of emergency and targeting and stigmatising sections of the already most oppressed parts of the population. Several mayors have said they will appeal.
According to Marine Le Pen, leader of the fascistic National Front, “the soul of France itself is at stake,” because “France does not imprison a woman’s body nor hides half the population under the pretext that the other half will be tempted.” Socialist Party Prime Minister Valls has written on Facebook that “the decision of the Supreme Court did not close the debate”. “Denouncing the burkini is not calling into question individual freedom… It is denouncing deadly, backward Islamism”. Women’s rights minister Laurence Rossiynol has declared that the bans help fight against “restriction of the female body”! However, education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem has stated that “there is absolutely no connection between terrorism and what a woman wears on the beach.”
The National Front and Marine Le Pen expect to make gains in the upcoming presidential elections. Ultra-rightists are feeling daring and are behind the proliferation of attacks against Muslims, who are 7.5% of France’s population. Among Muslims in France, who generally follow religious dress codes much less than Muslims in Britain, the ban was considered as a camouflaged attack not only on how Muslim women dress but also on how they self-identify.
While opposing the ban on the burkini, we should not slide into supporting the burkini and burqa under some postmodernist reasoning. For a large number of women in the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa, and sometimes in the Western world, religious dress codes are not their free choice, but a brutal coercion. They are an extreme symbol of obscurantism and repression of by hardcore Muslim Islamists. But opposition to religious compulsion is not served by such bans. The hypocrites who want to ban the burkini have no problem with the French State financing private Catholic schools. Or with the fact that in adjacent Belgium, much of the education is Catholic. Or with the mandatory religion classes, morning school prayers, and so on, in Greece.
The bans on burkinis has caused a 200% surge in sales. And such prohibitions can drive people into the open arms of fanatical Islamist organizations, which appear as the only defenders of their rights. To gain the trust of these women and engage them in the struggle for decent jobs and wages, against cuts, for a socialist society, we must defend their freedom of choice of dressing, of religious self-identification and of freedom of religious expression and exercise of religious beliefs.