It seems as if the saga is not yet over: despite France’s highest administrative court on Friday overturning the so-called “burkini ban”, ruling that it constituted “a serious and manifestly illegal infringement of fundamental liberties”, the majority of the 30 mayors who enacted the ban in their towns have vowed to continue enforcing it. With increasingly hysterical reactions from both sides, nobody seems to have stopped to consider how bizarre it is that the burkini, once sported by Nigella Lawson and essentially just a wetsuit, such as is worn by surfers and scuba-divers, has become a microcosm of France’s identity crisis.
Many in the British press have rightly been quick to lambast the strong whiff of xenophobia inherent in France’s reaction to a garment worn by a very small percentage of Muslim women. It seems that France, for all its public commitment to égalité, is having a difficult time accepting its rapidly changing public face: that, in 2016, a proud born-and-bred Frenchwoman enjoying a day at the beach might just as easily be Arab, Muslim and wearing a burkini as white, Catholic and wearing a bikini. We cannot too deny that history means that this is not a simple conflict of values: instead, we already arrive at this point bearing the weight of centuries of European colonialism which saw France conquer huge swathes of Africa and the Middle East and attempt to impose its culture and values upon its people, thereby delegitimising their religions and traditions. Bringing large numbers of immigrants from northern Africa into the country for cheap labour in the 1950s and 60s, La Republique then forced them into overcrowded suburbs, “les banlieues”, on the outskirts of Paris, and left them there until the seeds of resentment and radicalisation began to spread amongst unemployment, discrimination and a loss of faith in the French state. This development also comes from a culture in which France’s Muslim minority feel increasingly under siege, with many Muslim women in particular, singled out because their dress makes them more easily identifiable, being victims of racist abuse when just going about their everyday lives. As Huda Jawad wrote in The Independent, France’s fierce commitment to secularism often becomes a cover for in fact “singling out the most visible and vulnerable group in society for blame”.
Furthermore, though there have been many ideological arguments throughout history over whether women should wear more or less clothes to liberate themselves from misogynistic oppression, few have pointed out that it is in fact this obsessive interest in women’s clothes and bodies that is itself the problem. There are serious questions to be asked about how women are treated and viewed in highly conservative, religious cultures, yet pointing the finger of blame for what is unfortunately a world-wide injustice at the ostentatious “Other” makes us remarkably blind about the sexism which still persists in western culture. The symbol of the topless woman sunbathing is viewed as a symbol of French culture: and is also indicative of how the female figure is still fetishized and thus politicised by the male gaze. In a society which is sexualising increasingly younger girls, and produces digitally altered images of female perfection which women are shamed for not living up to, it is hardly surprising that some see more modest dress as offering them a safe-haven, where the focus might be on their thoughts and deeds, rather than the shape of their breasts. In this sense, the woman in a bikini might not be any more liberated than the one in a burkini. It is highly telling that, although it is unlikely that we will find devout Muslim men sunning themselves on France’s beaches in tight-fitting Speedos, we have no laws about their attire.
Yet, while the British media got a lot right in broadly condemning the ban, and drawing the link between the intersection of Islamophobia and sexism, there were also many blind-spots in its reporting. In particular, whilst condemning cultural ignorance, there was a great deal of venom being directed towards the “racist French”, as if the UK were a blissful haven immune from all forms of prejudice. In a manner rather similar to the reporting of the January 2015 attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, whilst a great deal of the French language and culture does not translate well into English, that does not mean that it is backwards or wrong, which a lot of British journalists continue to fail to grasp. We also cannot underestimate the effect that the frequent mass-casualty terrorist attacks in France, often perpetuated by French citizens, have had on the French psyche. Like it or not, these atrocities have occurred because some of France’s Muslims do not see themselves as part of the country where they have grown up. Since, thankfully, the UK has been spared an attack of this nature since the 7/7 bombings, it is bad form of British commentators to sneer from the side-lines as France attempts to save future lives by stressing societal integration and religious moderation.
This is not to say that the “burkini ban” is not wrong-headed, ridiculous, racist and sexist: it is all of these things. It is an outrage that armed French policemen have been surrounding Muslim women on beaches and demanding that they undress. Except in the most extreme of circumstances, the state should have no business dictating the beachwear of its citizens. There are much better ways for France to tackle the problems of segregation and growing extremism, both Islamist and far-right. Instead, France has adopted the more cowardly, and stupider, method of holding up the fatuous symbol of the burkini versus the bikini as a scapegoat for its divisions that will only deepen because of this.
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