France’s Burkini Ban Has Been Squashed, But What's Next in Controlling Women's Bodies?

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France’s Burkini Ban Has Been Squashed, But What's Next in Controlling Women's Bodies?

I am super pale. Red-hair-and-freckles pale. Family-history-of-skin-cancer pale. But, unfortunately for me, I can’t get enough of the beach. I love the salt and surf. So what do I wear on the sand, after summer after summer of painful, blistering burns?


I wear my favorite skimpy red string bikini, it just happens to be covered by full length yoga pants, a long sleaved rashie, a massive sun hat and sun block. Lots of sun block. You might have seen aging-conscious celebrities like Madonna and Nicole Kidman wearing similar outfits to protect them from the sun’s damaging rays. It’s a very attractive ensemble. I’m considering adding gloves.

I assume I could have worn my gorgeous beach outfit in one of the 15 French seaside cities that banned the burkini, but only because I’m not Muslim.

That’s what made this ban so stupid. I remember when France bought in a similar restriction against headscarves. It was perfectly ok to wear a bandana, just not an obviously religious cloth covering exactly the same amount of hair. That is ridiculous. It emphasizes that this is strictly about religion, and one religion in particular.

Governments shouldn’t tell women what to wear. Period. As long as a woman is sticking to the bare minimum standard of public decency, leave her alone. Are your private areas covered? Yes? Carry on.

Last month, French authorities went one step further. Rather than simply telling women what to wear, they made a covered woman disrobe in public. They completely stripped her of her dignity, in addition to her tunic. She wasn’t even wearing a burkini, she was wearing her normal clothes on a day out with her family as she wasn’t going to swim. Were Muslim women not allowed to wear their everyday clothes to the beach? Were they to be banned from this public space?

The ticket she was issued said that she was to be fined for not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.” I still don’t understand this. Whose morals? Is being covered from knees to elbows now immoral? Is it only immoral on beaches? What happens in winter? Seriously. If she got a ticket for wearing her everyday clothes at the beach in summer, was the same rule to apply when walking along a beach in winter? If I wore my normal sun-fearing outfit to the beach, would that have been ok because it is secular, rather than religiously prescribed? How on earth would they have known? Would it have been “immoral” to cover my pasty white skin? Or was this a line only Muslim women could not cross? If so, what kind of horrendous, discriminatory bullshit was that? It made France—the birthplace of liberty, equality and brotherhood—look ridiculous and petty. And the internet gloried in it, posting photos of covered Christian nuns on the beach, or unattractively rotund hairy men in speedos, asking were they not more offensive (you had to feel sorry for the poor older gent whose photo was illustrating that particular meme).

Yes, the poor woman was flouting the new law. But why was it the law?

Why do our societies – all over the world – have this obsession with controlling women’s clothing? In more conservative cultures, women may be expected to cover up so as not to tempt men. In many western countries, women can be blamed for courting sexual assault if they wear a short skirt. A few decades ago, bikinis were immoral because they didn’t cover enough skin, now burkinis are questioned because they cover too much. WTF? In 2016, women from one particular religious group are being told to undress because… why?

National security? Pushing Muslims further into the margins is more likely to increase terror sympathies, not nullify them. While regulations requiring faces to be visible on official ID cards etc are reasonable, necessitating women to bare their legs and arms while swimming is not. If you want to make a demoralised, isolated young man even more vulnerable to radicalisation, show him a video of a Muslim mother being forced to unclothe in public.

Women’s rights? Enforcing a burkini ban because Islam enforces modest dress on women is nonsensical. You can’t claim to stick up for a woman’s right to wear whatever she wants by denying her the opportunity to wear whatever she wants. I can’t believe I just had to write that sentence. The women who are going to France’s beaches in their burkinis are not house bound, meek lambs. They are getting out in society and enjoying life in a way that makes them feel comfortable. What is wrong with that?

Laïcité? France has a strict separation between state and church, and this translates to a restriction of religion to the private sphere. No religious symbols can be anywhere near government business. But since when is your choice of swimming attire government business?

I understand that France has been the victim of horrific terrorists attacks. They have a large population of angry, detached young men. They are scared. But this is not the answer.

Narratives like this – in France, in the US, all over the Western world – are not helpful. They are creating an “us v them” world view, but the “them” is all Muslims, not just people with violent, destructive, brutal ideology. The “us” should be all the sane people. The “them” should be all the extremists – of any destructive ideology. Remember, the vast majority of victims in this multifaceted war are Muslim civilians. We should be supporting moderates, not making their lives more difficult, more undignified and desperate. Our leaders should be speaking inclusively, reinforcing a sense of belonging and claiming the higher ground, not humiliating mothers in front of their children. It’s wrong, and it’s not who we are. It is counter to the freedoms and values we claim are central to western culture and thought. Laws like this just play into the extremists’ hands.

France’s burkini ban has since been overturned. Higher courts found the restriction illegal, because it violated basic freedoms. Hurrah. This decision is a triumph not only for common decency, but also for common sense. However, it does not overturn the ground swell of fear, and of general “othering” that many visible Muslims in our communities face on a daily basis. While this particular anti-Muslim restriction has failed, what abhorrent, counter-productive measure do our fear-mongering politicians have in store for us next?

(For more on the Burkini Ban, read Shannon Houston’s feature from Tuesday.)