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France’s ‘Burkini’ Bans Are about More than Religion or Clothing

By Amanda Taub

August 18, 2016

There is something inherently head-spinning about the so-called Burkini bans that are popping up in coastal France. The obviousness of the contradiction — imposing rules on what women can wear on the grounds that it’s wrong for women to have to obey rules about what women can wear — makes it clear that there must be something deeper going on.

“Burkinis” are, essentially, full-body swimsuits that comply with Islamic modesty standards, and on Wednesday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls of France waded into the raging debate over the bans in some of the country’s beach towns, denouncing the rarely seen garb as part of the “enslavement of women.”

This, of course, is not really about swimwear. Social scientists say it is also not primarily about protecting Muslim women from patriarchy, but about protecting France’s non-Muslim majority from having to confront a changing world: one that requires them to widen their sense of identity when many would prefer to keep it as it was.

“These sorts of statements are a way to police what is French and what is not French,” said Terrence G. Peterson, a professor at Florida International University who studies France’s relationship with Muslim immigrants and the Muslim world.

While this battle over identity is rising now in the wake of terrorist attacks, it has been raging in one form or another in French society for decades, Professor Peterson said. What seems to be a struggle over the narrow issue of Islamic dress is really about what it means to be French.

During France’s colonial era, when it controlled vast Muslim regions, the veil became a “hyper-charged symbol,” Professor Peterson said. Veiling was treated as a symbol of Muslims’ backwardness, and Frenchwomen’s more flexible standards of dress were seen as a sign of French cultural superiority, views that helped to justify colonialism.

Colonialism set France up for the identity crisis it is experiencing today by ingraining a sense of French national identity as distinct from and superior to Muslim identities — and, at the same time, holding out the promise of opportunity to colonized Muslims, who began migrating in large numbers to France. The resulting clash has often played out in debates over clothing.

The veil remained a potent symbol of difference as colonialism collapsed after World War II and Muslims from colonized countries flocked to France. But now, that difference was within a country trying to sort out its own postcolonial identity.

Over generations, the veil became more common among France’s Muslims, as a religious practice and, perhaps, as a symbol of their distinct cultural heritage. It was a visible sign of the way that France itself, as well as its role in the world, was changing.

As a result, the veil became a symbol not just of religious difference, but of the fact that people of French descent no longer enjoyed exclusive dominance over French identity. France had become a multicultural and multiethnic nation, where traditions meant very different things to different people.

The colonial-era symbolism of the veil as a sign of Muslim inferiority made it a convenient focus for arguments that the “traditional” French identity should remain not only the dominant but also the sole cultural identity in France.

Burkinis may seem frightening because they are seen as threatening that particular type of French identity by expressing an alternative form of identity — in this case, as Muslims. Many French, rather than believing that those two identities can coexist, perceive them as necessarily competitive.

There is even a pejorative French word for the introduction of these alternate identities, “communitarianism,” the growth of which is seen as a national crisis.

Muslim clothing items such as the veil or burkini have become symbols of the fact that French national identity is no longer the sole domain of the demographic groups that lived there for centuries. Rules like this summer’s burkini bans are meant to prevent the widening of French identity by forcing French Muslims not only to assimilate, but also to adopt the narrower, rigid identity.

This is a method that France has been using for decades, to repeated failure.

John Bowen, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, said France tended to experiment with such restrictions at times when it was struggling with both domestic and international tensions relating to Muslims and the Muslim world.

This began in 1989 with the so-called affaire du foulard (“affair of the scarf”), in which three French schoolgirls were suspended for refusing to remove their head coverings. Ostensibly, this was because the scarves were visible religious symbols and thus ran afoul of the French rule of laïcité, or secularism. But laïcité had been on the books since 1905, with head scarves nonetheless by and large permitted.

What changed, Professor Bowen wrote in a book on the subject, were events elsewhere in the world that made Islam seem like a particularly pernicious force. In 1989, Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa against the novelist Salman Rushdie. Around the same time, some Algerians formed the Islamic Salvation Front, a hard-line Islamist party and later insurgency.

Banning head scarves from French schools became a way to deal with the anxiety arising from those domestic and foreign events, and to stake a claim to protecting French values.

Head scarves in schools returned to the national spotlight in 1993 and 1994, as the French authorities worried that young men from Algerian immigrant families would join the Islamist insurgency in Algeria. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, veils were once again a focal point for fears of Muslim communities that were isolated from mainstream French society and culture.

And this summer, France is reeling from a series of deadly terrorist attacks, and is increasingly concerned about young French Muslims’ traveling to Syria to join the Islamic State or other jihadist groups. Once again, some in France view the drive for assimilation as a national security issue.

The veil is an especially potent symbol of anxiety over assimilation because wearing it is a choice. Whereas fixed characteristics like race or skin color do not imply any judgment on French culture or values, clothing implies a decision to be different — to prioritize one’s religious or cultural identity over that of one’s adopted country.

Garment bans are meant, in effect, to pressure French Muslims to disregard any sense of communitarian identity and adopt the narrowly French identity that predates their arrival. But trying to force assimilation can have the opposite effect: telling French Muslims that they cannot hold French and Muslim identities simultaneously, forcing them to choose, and thus excluding them from the national identity rather than inviting them to contribute to it.

France does have another choice: It could widen its national identity to include French Muslims as they are. This may feel scary to many French, more like giving up a comfortable “traditional” identity than gaining a new dimension to it. In the absence of accepting this change, there is a desire to pressure French Muslims to solve the identity crisis, but decades of this have brought little progress — and significant tension.