How much oppression is justified to enforce liberty? That’s a question arising from the ban on Burkhas and ‘Burkhinis’ in France and Spain. And when does mandatory secularism become an excuse for bigotry, racism and sexism? We’ve also seen some answers to that.
Most summer trips to the beach in the western world reveal the diversity of the human form laid out in all its glory. It’s not always ‘pretty’. But it’s the beach, so a different set of standards apply. We wear things we’d never otherwise wear in public or on the street. We choose the garb we’re most comfortable in, for swimming, sitting in the sun or parading. Almost anything – or nothing goes.
Some of us prefer to let it all hang out, and some prefer modesty.
Apparently, for Muslim women, modesty requires full dress – which can look quite styley; it’s self-respectful, and can be quite practical in offering protection from the sun. Among all the different shapes and sizes and states of undress at the beach, there are often sights far more challenging than women who choose to cover up. So in most countries, among the topless sunbathers, the formless bodies, the semi-naked teenagers, and the rash-suited swimmers, people in various other states of cover should just be part of that wonderfully diverse human mixed soup. I’ve seen photos of Catholic nuns paddling too. But no-one ever passed a law against that.
Indeed, it was only Muslim women – wearing burkhinis, and tunics, leggings and headscarves, who were fined for their beach-wear in France. So this isn’t about fashion, liberty, protecting from religious oppression, safety or providing for freedom of religious choice. This is about being a Muslim woman in France. Indeed, when a fight broke out over photos of a woman being taken in a burkhini, local politicians said it was the woman’s fault – proof, they said, of the dangers of ‘Muslim women wearing burkhinis at the beach’. That’s typical victim shaming right there.
French fears of ‘terrorism’ have become a justification for targeting Muslim women at the beach using tenuous links and reason. Women in conventional modest Muslim clothing at beaches and pools is out of the social order and will be prosecuted. Public displays of Muslim womanhood will not be tolerated. All Muslims, and specifically women in this case, are the collective scapegoats for terrorism, using the logic ‘Some Muslims carried out some terrorism attacks, therefore all Muslims are bad”. Furthermore “All Muslims are bad, so anyone wearing Muslim clothing is bad”. Ergo “Muslim women at the beach are bad”, a threat to social order and public safety, and should be banned.
It’s election year in France so across the spectrum politicians are picking up the bait and acting as harbingers of the hazards of Muslim women at the beach wearing headscarves and tunics. It’s a scary and slippery slope when a country adopts that almost as pre-election political consensus. But it also reveals hypocrisy and bias. When Saudi Arabia and Iran impose rigid dress codes, it’s oppression of women, but when France does it, it’s liberating? Even though no one actually asked the women how they felt about what they were wearing, ‘you can’t have a Muslim woman sitting on a beach wearing clothes’.
Nominally, burkhinis and Muslim swimming gear is outlawed because it is ‘unhygienic’, ‘enslavement of women’, ‘not respectful of good morals and secularism’, ‘extremist’, and ‘a risk to public order’. The excuses are ridiculous. The woman who was forced to remove her tunic by flak jacketed cops with pepper spray was just sitting on the beach. Nothing exceptionally unhygienic there. People nearby cheered when the police targeted her, and told her to go home. That’s not about hygiene, that’s about racism, fear, ignorance, irrationality. If she chose what she wore to the beach, she’s not enslaved. How she dresses on the outside says nothing about her morals.
There are almost five million Muslims in France, in a large part the result of France’s history of colonisation in Africa. At about 7% of the population, for many, France is ‘home’. Knee jerk, baseless prejudice inciting anti-Muslim sentiment among the rest of the population can only stigmatise and alienate Muslims further.
But it’s the same old story, men telling women what to do, what to wear, and they can’t win, unless they’re invisible. After all, what are Muslim women doing at the beach anyway. How come they’re even out in public. The French establishment would clearly rather they were somewhere else altogether.
The history of shaming women is nothing new. Women are shamed for wearing too little – wear a short skirt or low top and you’re a slut and deserve what you get. Wear a moderately conservative religious outfit and you’re a threat to the whole state.
The real principle is that women should be the ones who chose the garments that express their freedoms and liberties, and that this should extend to all parts of the public realm. This is lost on posturing French politicians taking cheap election shots to incite those who fear terrorism and fear real freedom for Muslim women.