by Saadia Faruqi
France is at it again. With a Muslim immigrant population that may be the largest in Europe, as well as worries about terrorism on the rise, French government officials have often targeted the most vulnerable of their Muslim populations: women. The latest regulation bans the use of the burkini – a form of the bathing suit that almost completely covers the body – on French beaches.
The ban has raised a great deal of controversy and protest, not only amongst Muslims. Feminists wonder why women’s bodies are once again at the center of policing activities. Why should any government rule on the sort of clothing a woman may or may not wear to the beach or anywhere else? It’s important to remember that France already banned the headscarf in classrooms in 2004, and the full- and half-face veil (such as the burqa) in 2010. This then, is the latest in a wave of discrimination against a group that makes no political or religious sense. In fact, it downright stinks of patriarchy, exactly the “crime” France accuses Islamic countries of.
As a Muslim woman who wears the hijab and coat (but doesn’t cover her face) I am troubled by these latest developments in France for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the French government’s motivations for banning the headscarf, the face veil and now the burkini are unclear. For instance, when the face veil was banned in 2010, public security was touted as the push behind it.
Controlling Muslim women’s clothing hasn’t curbed terrorism
As we saw from terrorist attacks in the last few years, banning the face veil had no effect on security in France. The main result was the unfortunate marginalization and ostracization of Muslim women, a rise in negative perception of Muslim French nationals overall, and even a rise in extremism according to some experts. One French newspaper reports on the results of the ban, and it’s the complete opposite of what it was supposed to achieve.
Many in France – and around the world – perceive the hijab and its iterations, such as the niqab or burqa, as a fundamental oppression of women. There are feminists on both sides, including Muslim feminists, who consider the forced covering of female bodies completely wrong.
Although in some cultures, that is certainly true – Afghanistan’s burqa under the Taliban and obligatory hijab in Saudi Arabia or Iran – it is not the case for most Muslim women or the norm in most Islamic cultures. Hijab becomes a personal choice, often one fiercely defended, for young women all over the world. It expands and increases the numbers of public spaces that Muslim women can easily and safely frequent, including the swimming pool or the beach. It can be feminism at its finest.
The stated reason for this latest French ban, according to news reports, is that the burkini is “not compatible with the values of France and the Republic.” What does this actually imply? Is being almost-naked a French value? Are modesty and decency so far removed from French values that anyone who highlights them through their clothing or actions must be legally penalized? This is shocking in one way, but also sadly ignorant in other ways.
The burkini is liberating — not oppressive
If anything, the burkini is a liberating piece of clothing for Muslim women and others of any faith who wish to remain modest. Whereas women of earlier generations were unable to visit the beach or swim for reasons of modesty, the burkini allows women these days to swim and otherwise engage in physical activity on unprecedented levels. The burkini is a versatile piece of clothing that, again, is a symbol of freedom, feminism and athletics. How and why the French government has linked it to so-called Islamic extremism is a mystery.
It doesn’t help matters that the burkini is a popular form of dress for many women of many faiths, including Muslim and Jewish women. In fact, Jewish groups in France and elsewhere are condemning the ban because it will affect them as well. The founder of the original burkini, an Australian Muslim businesswoman, estimates that 40 percent of their customers are actually non-Muslim. Belief in modesty, discomfort with unfair beauty standards and concerns about skin cancer fuel these purchases.
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Finally, what do Muslim women in particular think of the burkini?
Dilshad, the Muslim mother of an autistic son in Virginia, explains: “The burkini provides access to be able to do with my kids whatever I want. It allows me to be ready to jump in the water should they ever need help. It allows me to be there for my special-needs son in one of the few activities he truly enjoys.”
Afshan, a Muslim woman from Houston, Texas, says: “The burkini makes it feasible to keep within religious guidelines for coverage and wear something that is specifically designed for water use. Also the material is great.”
Emily, also a Muslim from Houston, Texas, says: “I’m top-heavy and I hate that most swimwear is not made for a body shape like mine. I honestly feel more comfortable when covered at the pool, especially around my kids.”
Most people outside France are not fooled. The New York Times says the ban is about more than religion or clothing. “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.”
The bottom line is that any restriction on clothing, religious or otherwise, effectively shuts off women from public spaces. The headscarf ban in schools discourages Muslim girls from getting an education. The veil bans restrict government services that fully covered Muslim women can access even if they are French citizens. This latest burkini ban tells us that if you want to swim, spend quality time with your family, or even just get some exercise, you must do so on some arbitrary terms that reek of patriarchy and societal standards.
Saadia Faruqi is an interfaith activist, cultural sensitivity trainer and author of the short story collection Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan. She was born in Pakistan and now lives in Houston, Texas. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter.