Some areas of France have banned women from wearing the burkini – the Islamic swimming costume – on the beach. This ban caused controversy in the media a few days ago when police (fully clothed and brandishing guns) obliged a woman to remove her long sleeved top. Here are my hurriedly typed thoughts on this incident and on the ban.
What exactly is banned? The law seems unclear. The woman who was so humiliated was not actually wearing a burkini but a long sleeved top. Does this mean that nobody is allowed to wear a long sleeved top on those beaches? I sometimes put on a long sleeved top on the beach if I feel that my shoulders and arms have had enough exposure to the sun. Would I be forced to burn my skin? I have friends who cover their arms to hide the scars from past self-harming. Would they be forced to bare their scars for all to see and judge? Or is it only Muslims who have to expose their bodies, and the rest of us have the freedom to choose what to bare and what to cover?
Why is it banned? I have heard a number of explanations for this law, which seems strange, as if you are going to pass a new law, the reasoning behind it should be clear.
Some say it is because France is a secular state and bans religious clothing. Does this mean we will have armed police checking that Christians are not wearing a crucifix around their neck on the beach? In any case, the law on secularity, which among other things bans Sikh turbans, only applies in schools. Anyone is free to wear a turban on the beach should they choose to do so.
Others say it is a security measure – a bomb could be concealed under a burkini or a long sleeved top. But surely this isn’t specific to beaches. A bomb could be concealed under somebody’s clothing in a shopping centre. Or in a church. Are we to bare our bodies in these places too? It would make no sense to force people to uncover only on the beach if this were the reason.
One explanation that I have heard for the ban is that Muslim women who wear the burkini are being oppressed by men. They are being told what they can and cannot wear. So, how do we fight this oppression? By getting different men to tell them what they can and cannot wear!
Another justification I have heard is that it is because Muslims must integrate into French society. Do they really think this is the way to encourage integration? To humiliate a woman by sending armed police to order her to undress? Will that make her feel included in society? If a new neighbour from another culture moved into your street and you wanted to encourage them to integrate, what would you do? Would you pop round with a homemade cake ask how they are settling in? Or would you take round some western clothes and force them to undress in front of you and get changed into something that fitted in with your culture? Imagine you went to a country where it was the custom for women to walk around topless. I’m sure such places exist. If you were not used to baring your breasts in public you would probably prefer to keep your top on. I’m sure I would. How would you feel if a policeman with a gun forced you to remove your clothing in a public place with lots of people watching? Would this help you to integrate and to feel part of society?
Freedom and Judgement Whenever people debate Muslim women covering their bodies, or their hair or their faces, people always talk about freedom, and about being judged. Some argue that women are judged if they cover up, so they are more free if they uncover. But does uncovering free you from judgement? I never wore a bikini until a few years ago because I thought I was too fat and I feared the judgement of others. I only wear one now because I lost enough weight for me to feel as though my body was acceptable enough to other people. So does uncovering really make you more free? Some Muslims who cover their hair or their face, say that they do it so that nobody can judge them on their looks, their hair or their face. They can only be judged on what they say and do. So I guess we will be judged whatever we do; at least we should have the freedom to choose whether we wish to cover up or not. We should be the ones who decide whether we feel free with more clothes or fewer clothes. Nobody else can decide that for us.
France has been the victim of some horrendous terrorist attacks recently. They are very worried about Muslims becoming radicalised. But is humiliating women at gunpoint the right way to protect them from being radicalised? I think it’s more likely that this ban will make French Muslims feel less included, less welcome in society, and therefore more likely to listen to the people who would radicalise them.