By Sadanand Dhume
Aug 31, 2016
Did France do the right thing by banning the so-called Burkini, a baggy head-to-toe wetsuit that reveals only a woman’s face, from about 30 beaches across the Riviera?
On Friday a French court struck down the ban at one beach, but the broader argument around it will continue to rage. Opponents decry the ban as a hideous human rights violation that has no place in a country that prides itself on its democratic values. Ban supporters welcome it as a sign that the French are finally standing up to a culture of Islamic extremism in their midst.
There is another way to look at the controversy, especially for those of us not directly affected by who wears what on a distant shore. The Burkini ban may be ham-handed and extreme, but the underlying problem it flags is all too real. The quest to enshroud women is a cornerstone of Islamism, the ideology that seeks to order all of life by the tenets of orthodox Islam. The French are wise to recognise this, even if they are foolish to fight it with this ban.
By now almost anyone who has heard of a Burkini would likely have heard the case against the ban. It violates a basic tenet of individual liberty — a person’s right to decide for herself what to wear. It will further constrict the lives of Muslim women already oppressed by community norms. It gives the Islamic State and other terrorist groups an easy propaganda victory. They can say, “Look, even the French don’t let women dress as they please.”
The idea of a law that effectively forces women to reveal skin in order to enjoy the beach makes many Indians especially uncomfortable. Where will the withering gaze of Western modernity turn its attention next? What if they decree that Sarees and Shalwar Qameezes don’t respect “good morals and secularism”?
Not surprisingly, arguments in favour of the ban tend to be bluntly put. As a democracy, France has every right to expect immigrants to respect its cultural norms in public spaces. Just as you wouldn’t dream of wearing a bikini on a Saudi Arabian or Iranian beach, you shouldn’t disrespect local custom by wearing a Burkini in France.
Moreover, the argument goes, the French deserve to be cut a little slack considering the sheer horror inflicted upon them by Islamic extremists. In January 2015, terrorists murdered 12 people at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. Ten months later they killed another 130 people in the Paris attacks.
Last month, two 19-year-olds of Algerian ancestry slit a Catholic priest’s throat in a church in Normandy. Barely two weeks earlier, a Tunisian immigrant, claimed as a “soldier” by the Islamic State, used a cargo truck to mow down 84 people out celebrating Bastille Day. The dead included ten children.
At such a fraught time, can you really blame the average French person for not eagerly welcoming an obtrusive advertisement for Islamic norms — at some level the same norms that many terrorists claim to champion — at the beach?
Moreover, the French response to the Burkini is embedded in an historical context alien to many of its loudest critics in Britain and America. In Catholic France, secularists clawed authority away from a powerful clergy by imposing a particularly stringent form of separation between church and state known as laïcité. Against this backdrop, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that French laws banning face-covering garments such as the Niqab in public do not violate religious freedom.
Indeed, the question of women’s clothing and Islamism is far more complex than many liberal critics of the Burkini ban acknowledge. As the London-based Egyptian commentator Nervana Mahmoud has argued, the Burkini is problematic for two reasons: It symbolises a perception in the Islamic world that women who cover up are superior to those who do not. And for many Islamists it is merely one step on the ladder toward complete segregation of the sexes.
As Mahmoud puts it, “the more women give in and cover up, the more the advocates of regression will raise the stakes higher.”
To its credit, France has grasped this complexity — that the burkini is not merely a piece of swimwear, but also a symbol of a regressive political project. Nonetheless, this particular ban appears lazily concocted and ultimately counterproductive.
Safety concerns can justify outlawing the all-encompassing Burqa and face-covering Niqab from public places. A narrowly tailored ban on ostentatious displays of religiosity in French state schools applies equally to headscarves, large crosses, Jewish yarmulkes and Sikh turbans.
Nobody in their right mind can argue that a Burkini makes a great hiding place for an AK-47. And on the face of it the Burkini ban appears narrowly aimed at pious Muslims rather than equally at all flagrant displays of faith.
More importantly, neither the West, nor pluralistic democracies more broadly, will defeat Islamism by mimicking it. Ultimately, freedom of choice is as powerful an idea as the Islamist vision of implementing god’s law on Earth. Victory for the democratic world lies not in banishing Burkinis from France, but in a future where women everywhere can choose without fear or coercion to wear a bikini, a Burkini or anything else.