France and the burkini ban
Lawmakers beware!

Demand too much conformity of a population and you may end up with the exact opposite. Forcing people to adhere to a common identity, as in the case of the burkini ban, fosters a rebellious insistence on difference. By Ian Buruma

There has been a lot of fuss lately about the handful of Muslim women who choose to bathe on French beaches wearing a special garment that covers the head (not the face) and much of the body. That garment – the so-called burkini – was invented in 2004 by an Australian-Lebanese woman named Aheda Zanetti, with the goal of enabling even the strictest Muslim women to swim or play sports in public. Little did Zanetti know that her creation would generate a national controversy.

The imbroglio started when mayors in several southern French seaside towns banned burkinis on their beaches. A grotesque photograph soon appeared in newspapers around the world of three armed French policemen forcing a woman to undress on a beach in Nice. Though the ban has now been invalidated by France′s highest court, it is still enforced in several seaside resorts.

And, indeed, the controversy is far from over. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is now running for a new term, recently called the burkini a ″provocation″, while Lionnel Luca, the mayor of Villeneuve-Loubet, spoke of ″rampant Islamisation″. The equally outraged Prime Minister Manuel Valls has called bare breasts a symbol of French republican liberty. After all, he concluded, wasn′t Marianne, the female symbol of the French Republic, usually depicted with her breasts exposed?

Sarkozy′s political opportunism

There is little doubt that Sarkozy′s opposition to the burkini is entirely opportunistic. The controversy represents yet another opportunity to stoke prejudice against an unpopular minority, in the hope of siphoning votes from the far-right National Front′s Marine Le Pen in the 2017 election. But, in a tradition that spans centuries of European missionary zeal, his opportunism has been cloaked in moral terms: ″We don′t imprison women behind fabric.″

Nicolas Sarkozy giving a speech in Le Touquet (photo: Reuters/P. Rossignol)
Specious support for burkini ban: "There is little doubt that Sarkozy′s opposition to the burkini is entirely opportunistic. The controversy represents yet another opportunity to stoke prejudice against an unpopular minority, in the hope of siphoning votes from the far-right National Front′s Marine Le Pen in the 2017 election," writes Ian Buruma

Sarkozy would have us believe that the ban on burkinis is really meant to liberate Muslim women from primitive restrictions imposed by authoritarian Muslim men, just as British colonial rulers once liberated Indian Hindu widows from being burned alive to accompany their spouses in death. This reflects a broader tendency, which has been gaining traction since the end of the last century, to couch anti-Muslim rhetoric in the language of human rights, as though equal rights for women or gays were ancient Western customs that must be defended against alien religious bigotry.

In Valls′s version of history, public nudity is a cherished French tradition and a sign of freedom. To be fully French, it seems, women must, like Marianne, bare their breasts.

Yet, in the nineteenth century, when Marianne became a symbol of the French Republic, nudity was acceptable only in an idealised form, in paintings or sculptures of Greek deities and other mythical heroines. It was fine to gaze at the breasts of a painted nude Marianne or Venus; but for a real, living woman to expose even part of her ankle was considered highly improper.

Of course, nowadays, these attitudes are rare in the Western world. So even though Valls′s version of history is skewed, one might argue that European Muslims who insist that women of their faith should be covered up are out of step – especially given that women sometimes have little choice in the matter.

Cultural pressure

Indeed, in some immigrant areas, Muslim women feel obliged to cover their heads, lest Muslim men see them as prostitutes, who may be molested with impunity. But this is not always the case. Some Muslim women actually choose to wear a hijab and, in rare cases, a burkini.

The question is whether the state should be determining what citizens should or should not wear. The French republican answer is that people may wear whatever they like in private, but must conform to secular rules in public.

In recent years, however, those rules have been applied more strictly to Muslims than to members of any other faith. I have not heard of policemen forcing orthodox Jewish women to bare their heads by ripping off their wigs.

Well, some might argue, orthodox Jews are not responsible for massacres in the name of their religion. And that is true. But the assumption that women in burkinis are all potential terrorists is farfetched. A woman lying on a beach in a body-covering swimsuit is probably the least likely person to start shooting or bombing.

As for the argument that Muslim women need the state to free them from Muslim men who force them to wrap their heads in scarves or cover up their bodies, the question is whether this is worth depriving other women of their choice to appear in public in these ways.

Better educated in a headscarf than not at all

I am inclined to doubt that it is. The best way to help women escape from domestic authoritarianism is to encourage them to lead public lives as well, in schools, in offices and on beaches. It is better for a woman to be educated in a headscarf than not to be educated at all.

For certain public functions, it is perfectly legitimate to ask people to show their faces. Some jobs come with certain dress codes. Private companies can insist on their own rules; there is no need for national legislation. The excessive imposition of conformity by the state can actually have the opposite effect than what is intended. Forcing people to adhere to a common identity fosters a rebellious insistence on difference.

It is no good telling people named Fatima or Mohammed that they are French and must adhere to the norms laid down by Sarkozy or Valls, if they are not treated as equals by people called Nicolas or Marianne. Wearing a headscarf, beard, or bodysuit can be a harmless way for humiliated people to defend their pride. Take away that pride and defensiveness can swiftly become less harmless.

Ian Buruma

© Project Syndicate 2016

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Comments for this article: Lawmakers beware!

In this whole Burkini-Charade (which apparently has escalated into attacks on people wearing shorts), it might be worthwhile to remember that, some years ago, in Morocco, there had been suggestions to ban fully dressed women from entering Swimming pools and beaches, in order not to disturb "modern" swimmers and sun bathers (mots of them Moroccans, by the way). The public Dispute on this suggestion had been much more civilised then what we see These days in France (and elsewhere in Europe). Maybe we should learn from Morocco!

Bernd Leber23.09.2016 | 10:57 Uhr

Sir we have to fight terrorism shall we send air force to bomb isis ? no .shall we send aid to the rebels ? no shall we decrease number of immigrants ? no . what shall we do sir ? BAN BURKINI . It's part of western society who can't seem to stop objectifying women. Look around its everywhere. U get paid more to take ur clothes off, and fined for wearing more clothes.

It's ok for Nuns to chill on the beach full clothed but not Muslim females? Absolutely disgrace! Glad to hear of this being suspended!

Mayors do mot have the right to ban Burkinis. France’s highest administrative court ruled.
The Council of State's ruling suspends a ban in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet, near Nice, and could affect cities around the country that have prohibited the full-length swimsuit.

I'm fascinated to hear from those decrying this decision exactly what they would do if local authorities decided to ban an item of their clothing and engaged policemen to force them to take it off in public? Hiding behind the nonsense that the Burkini defies France's secular culture is just pathetic. There is nothing outwardly religious about it as the police proved by their own incompetence yesterday in failing to distinguish Burkinis from similar dress worn by women with no allegiance to Islam at all. The court has ruled quite correctly according to law. Let's hope that's an end to it. I am proudly a reactionary person is to defend the common good and the good of society I am in favour of Burkini in Europe

French authorities have been criticised for imposing the ban, after photographs were published this week of police fining Muslim women wearing headscarves on beaches. It has peaked fierce debate on freedom of religion, women's rights and the integration of France's Muslim community. The ban was imposed following a series of terror attacks in France by Islamist terrorists.

Opinion polls suggested most of the French public supported the bans, which Muslims claimed targeted them unfairly.

John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Europe Director welcomed the court's decision.

"By overturning a discriminatory ban that is fuelled by and is fuelling prejudice and intolerance, today's decision has drawn an important line in the sand," he said in a statement.

"French authorities must now drop the pretence that these measures do anything to protect the rights of women. Rather, invasive and discriminatory measures such as these restrict women's choices and are an assault on their freedoms of expression, religion and right to non-discrimination."

"These bans do nothing to increase public safety, but do a lot to promote public humiliation. Not only are they in themselves discriminatory, but as we have seen, the enforcement of these bans leads to abuses and the degrading treatment of Muslim women.

A long time ago, in Europe, a Catholic woman had to cover her hair when entering a church. Also, before nuns were liberated, they had to wear habits! Very restrictive and ridiculous! The French then didn't make a big deal out of it as it was A RELIGIOUS RIGHT!

Long before France attempted to colonise parts of Africa and the Middle East, there was a battle, in 732, at Tours, when an Islamic army, led by Abdul Rahman, tried to colonise all of France, and to force every French person to convert. The French drove them back to Spain, with much bloodshed. So, naturally, they have a reasonable amount of distrust for anything Muslim. After the battle of Tours, France was "ruled" for 1,000 years or so by the Church of Rome, and the "aristocracy", until the revolution of 1793, when the people decided that no religion or royalty would ever hold sway over the elected government. That`s it, and the laughable attempts by Islamists to justify dress codes mandated by their "prophets", is just, laughable. Thank you. Banning the Burkini by the French govt. is not the issue but telling me that France is a secular country after the banning of the Burkini is the big issue. This is hypocrisy and we know it.

European immigrants to Australia, New Zealand, Canada or even the USA did that they took their religion, culture, language and customs with them and then forced the indigenous people to behave like them!! The French government is doing exactly what ISIS and the other terrorist groups want. They want the French government to segregate and discriminate against Muslims, to create a us and them society. Well done France, bowing to terrorism. How many attacks were carried out by French Muslim women in Burkinis?

Women should be allowed to wear WHATEVER THEY WANT on the beach. Whether that be a bikini, a swimming costume, a skirt, leggings, a dress, pyjamas, trousers, a jacket, a coat, a jumper, a hoody, a Burkini! It's their body so should be their choice whether to strip off or cover up. The West is fast becoming very oppressive and hypocritically doing the very thing it's accusing other nations of.

Iftikhar Ahmad23.09.2016 | 13:12 Uhr