The burkini ban in my home country (I am a French woman living in London) has made headlines for most of August.
The burkini ban in my home country (I am a French woman living in London) has made headlines for most of August. Despite the fact that it has eventually been overturned by the highest French court, the debate is far from over. Journalists have had a field day mocking what they see as an attack against personal freedoms, and keep mentioning that the rightwing in France still supports the ban. What a simplistic view of the situation!
According to various polls, two thirds of the French population supported the ban, and this included the socialist French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, who famously said that that the full-body swimsuit symbolised the enslavement of women. So what is this really about? I got tired of reading analysis that, in my view, only gave a partial side of the issue, so here is my (very French) take on it.
First of all, France is a secular country. Obviously, France is not the only Western country to insist on the separation of church and state – but I believe that it does so more militantly than any other. To an extent, you could say that secularism is the closest thing we French have to a state religion. It underpinned the French Revolution and has been a foundation of the country's progressive thought for centuries. The law of separation meant strict official neutrality in religious affairs. The Republic has always recognised individuals, rather than groups: this means that you are supposed to be French first, then Muslim, or Catholic, or whatever your religion or ethnic minority might be. You therefore need to comply with the law even if it goes against your religious beliefs, because secularism prevails in all circumstances. Although it can be carried to extremes that other countries don’t understand, this view of citizenship is fundamentally non-discriminatory and inclusive. It’s all about finding a common ground, whatever your religion. Burkini bans must be viewed in this context, and are nothing new.
Rightly or wrongly, French citizens are scared of the Islamisation of their society. Obviously the latest attacks in Nice have further polarised an already divided population. The population is still traumatised, and believes that things have become worse over the last decade or so: people see more veiled women on the street, and are shocked to see a few niqabs or burkas from time to time, despite a full ban. This is compounded by the fact that young women are more and more targeted by some members of the Muslim community on the issue of modesty. For instance, last year in Reims a young woman sunbathing in a public park was set upon by a gang of teenage girls. They objected to her bikini, and the town’s authorities were fast to insist there was no religious aspect to the attack. Nobody believed them.
I belong to a generation that never saw a burkini or a full-body swimsuit at the beach before this summer’s events. This is clearly a new occurrence. The French also are shocked to learn that France is now home to thousands of Islamic radicals. Citizens feel that enough ground has been ceded to minorities in general, and to the Muslim minorities in particular. They think that things have now come to a head, and learned the hard way that political correctness doesn’t work. Furthermore, the French don’t understand why their women should cover up when they visit some Muslim country, but let women wear a veil or a burkini when they visit France. In short, they don’t understand why they should compromise when other countries don’t. It’s all about "my country, my rules".
Then again, I keep reading that the burkini is empowering for Muslim women who wouldn’t be able to go to the beach otherwise. I am struggling with such a point. Just look at the 1950s and 1960s photos of women in modern, comfortable clothes in Afghanistan or Egypt. They clearly were not forced to succumb to the new wave of stricter Islamic dress code. What changed? Why should women suddenly cover up? Islam seems to have been hijacked, and women are, once again, the first hostages. Why should women sympathise with the hijackers? Isn’t this a classic case of Stockholm syndrome?
And what’s next? Should we also allow FGM to be respectful of different cultural practices? What about polygamy? In short, Western societies need to define what’s acceptable for them, and what’s not. There is a need to draw a line, and maybe the French have drawn it at the burkini. Is it futile? Maybe. But at least a social debate is starting. It’s a debate that societies simply can’t avoid forever. Whether we like it or not, society must have a clear set of "inclusiveness principles", and it’s probably better to face the issue rather than ignore it.
Don’t get me wrong, if covering up was simply a matter of personal style I would be all for it. But let’s be honest: it’s fairly easy to see whether women cover up for religious reasons or not (for starters women would get a hat, not a veil). What makes me angry is when I am out in blistering heat, and I see a family at the beach with kids in bathing suits, the dad in swimming trunks, and the mum covered in black from head to toe. It’s modest and it’s for religious reasons, but those reasons clearly seem oppressive and unfair. I can’t understand why a husband would want his wife to wear this. And don’t even try to swim in such an attire.
In the end, the burkini and some other Islamic dresses are less innocuous than they seem. It has to do with an explicit inequality between genders, which is unacceptable under French law. Let’s face it: we already have far too many of such inequalities…So why should the French accept this one? And let’s not forget that Syrian women burnt burqas in celebration after being freed from Isil. In the meantime, in France, more Muslim women are peer-pressured to wear the veil or the burkini. This seems rather counter-intuitive.
In conclusion, it’s time to go back, understand and reinforce the principles that underpin our democracies. Integration is a two-way street. Was the ban the best way to deal with the issue? Probably not. But I sincerely hope that it will start a much-needed social debate, in France and anywhere else.