Banning The Burkini

Plenty of reasons have been proffered for the ban on the so-called burkini in certain French holiday resorts, but not one of them stands up to scrutiny. I’ve never agreed with the intermittent calls to ban the burka and the veil in the UK, but there is a case, however weak, for doing so – concerns about security and being able to converse with women wearing them may be frequently overstretched, but are, at least, genuine concerns. There is no such justification for banning the burkini – they do not conceal the face and offer no concealment for weapons or explosives, nor the means for a male terrorist to masquerade as a woman and slip through border control (nor are they likely to be worn at the airport…). Recognising this, those seeking their ban have mostly restricted themselves to the claims that burkinis cause offence, prevent integration or are a sign of aggression towards the French secular state.

While it is true that some people take offence at women wearing burkinis, the argument that they should be banned to prevent the disorder that occurs when someone decides to attack or abuse a woman wearing one is ridiculous. Some people are racists who take offence at black people, but if someone suggested banning black people from the beach for fear a racist might assault them and cause a disturbance, would anyone take their argument seriously? I doubt it. Indeed, some people take offence at scantily-clad women, so why not ban the bikini before it causes an upset? Why not just ban women for fear of further misogynistic hissy fits? The line of thinking is ridiculous! If a woman in a burkini is minding her own business and someone attacks or abuses them, the only just response is to arrest the aggressor – they are the one responsible for the incident, not the woman, and their behaviour is criminal and without excuse. Attempts to justify the ban on such grounds are just condoning such behaviour – but, then, should we be surprised when several municipalities with the ban responded to a court ruling it illegal by committing to retain their bans? They demonstrate contempt for the law, as well as logic and human decency.

The suggestion that the burkini prevents integration is a more serious argument, but without any basis. It fails on two points. The first is the obvious one that there is no such thing as a single standard of normalcy – people are not automatons that act and dress the same. Just because someone retains elements of their own culture or wear or do things that reflect their own personality, it doesn’t mean they are antipathetic or antagonistic towards the broader culture. The second is that the burkini actually represents a move towards integration – Muslim women want to take part in the same activities as non-Muslim women. In another generation or two, they may (for better or worse) come to wear the bikini, but, for now, at least, the burkini is a bridge between the separateness of the past and the potential for full integration in the future; people tend to adapt in stages rather than make wholesale changes overnight. It is ironic that the women, who are criticised for not doing things with non-Muslims, are criticised for ‘not fitting in’ when they do try to interact.

The suggestion that a burkini is a sign of aggression towards the French secular state is equally ridiculous, although hardly a surprise given that while the French love to proclaim their love of equality and liberty, yet regularly seek to ban and marginalise anything and anyone that doesn’t fit in with their preconceived notions of ‘being French’. There is the attempt to portray it as a proclamation of support for Islamic State, as if Islam and terrorism are the same thing – a view that, at best, demonstrates incredible ignorance – supplemented by a deep-seated, but equally ignorant, view that religion is the enemy of the secular state (insofar as it is, it is because of the persecution by the French republic of those who do not comfortably fit its norms, just as its attempts to destroy minority cultures and languages has led to the backlash of Corsican and Basque terrorism).

An attempt at combining this stance with the claim of offence is the argument that a woman wearing a burkini near where the truck attack occurred in Nice is a calculated insult to the victims. Again, given that the terrorist was a man and wasn’t wearing a burkini, this is based solely on the idea that Islam and Islamic State are the same thing. No reasonable person would presume that someone identifiable as a Muslim automatically supported terrorists, so wouldn’t take offence. Given that one of the victims was a Muslim woman, this argument is a rather sick one. Nor does it cover the other beaches where it is banned, nor the fact that it would be perfectly legal to wear it where the attack took place.

There have also been suggestions that the burkini oppresses women. Even where a women is covering up in obedience to her husband rather than for her own reasons (and most do seem to cover up to satisfy their own desire for modesty rather than due to coercion), as mentioned above, a burkini represents a loosening of restraints and should be welcomed as an improvement. Indeed, banning the burkini would restrict the ability of Muslim women to mix with others and partake in activities, or even take their children to the beach or pool, as they, either out of a refusal to compromise their own modesty or at the command of their husband, wouldn’t wear a bikini in its place.

But, there is an inherent misogyny to this viewpoint as it is predicated upon the inability of women to choose for themselves what to wear and largely rests upon the necessity of men (rich white men) to pass laws to ‘save’ them from coercion from men. Yes, it seems women need men to save them from oppression from men because, apparently, they are too weak and stupid to make their own minds up or ‘save’ themselves. I would ask if any line of reasoning could be more crass, but then we regularly see the view in the media and politics that Africans and Arabs need white men to save them from the iniquities of their dark-skinned rulers, so it seems par for the course.

There have been accusations from feminists that the burkini propagates a view that a woman’s body is shameful or unpleasant. This is a slightly-more intelligent argument, but falls down on three points. The first is that the view that a woman’s body is something that should be flaunted risks turning women into sex objects. The second is that it assumes women solely cover their bodies out of shame or modesty based on their gender – some may cover up because they are embarrassed about some perceived flaw, while others might want to keep out of the sun. The third is that it is sexist – nobody complains when a man wears a shirt because he lacks a six-pack or wears shorts rather than speedos, nor are there complaints if it is suggested a man cover up rather than putting his sun-burnt beer belly on display – nor does anyone suggest that a man is congenitally incapable of making a decision about what to wear, except perhaps sartorially, nor claim that his decision somehow reflects upon the rest of the male race.

The simple fact, that all these arguments are nothing more than puerile fig leaves for racism, Islamophobia and misogyny. The state should only intervene in the lives of its citizens in the most extreme of situations and what a woman wears whilst splashing in the sea is highly unlikely to ever make the grade.

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