In a liberal democracy, government has no business dictating what clothing is or is not acceptable to wear – and banning the burqa or burkini only further delays the long-overdue day of reckoning between conservative Islam and modern Muslim women
France is now taking its official ban of the burqa one step further, as the mayor of Cannes announces a ban on burkini beachwear on the grounds that the concealing garment poses a security risk.
The New York Times reports:
The mayor of the French resort city of Cannes has barred women from bathing on public beaches in swimsuits that reveal too little skin.
At issue are the full-body, head-covering garments worn in the water by some Muslim women, which have been nicknamed burkinis, an amalgam of burqa and bikini. The mayor’s ban has drawn protests from French Muslims who say it is discriminatory.
That the debate is occurring on the Riviera, the Mediterranean vacation area that has been on edge since the terrorist attack on a Bastille Day celebration in nearby Nice, has only added to the controversy.
Critics of the ban say it risks deepening rifts with France’s Muslims. It is the latest example of the long-running tensions between France’s forceful — some say inconsistent — commitment to secularism and the desire of many Muslims to express traditional values like modesty through their attire.
The mayor’s ordinance, which runs until Aug. 31, bars people from entering or swimming at the city’s public beaches in attire that is not “respectful of good morals and secularism” and that does not respect “rules of hygiene and security.” Offenders risk a fine of 38 euros, or about $42.
Why are burkinis against the rules? “Beach attire that ostentatiously displays a religious affiliation, while France and places of worship are the target of terrorist acts, is likely to create risks to public order,” the ordinance says.
If this were being done in a public place on the grounds of security, the mayor of Cannes would be in a much stronger position, and would gain this blog’s sympathy, particularly after the appalling terrorist truck attack in Nice on Bastille Day. There is a very logical and powerful argument to be made against the prohibition on wearing any overtly concealing clothing when entering public buildings such as town halls, courts, public schools, parks or beaches, just as motorcycle owners are asked to remove their helmets before entering a bank branch.
But the mayor of Cannes has taken this action with specific reference not to security, but in the name of laïcité (the separation of church and state). We know this because French government officials have explicitly said so:
This costume [the burkini], Mr Lisnard [the mayor] declared, “ostentatiously displays religious affiliation”, could “disrupt public order”, and might even, in the words of one official, demonstrate “an allegiance to terrorist movements”.
Now secular government is broadly a very good thing, and societies become more free as they cast off the remaining vestiges of theocracy – one of the reasons that this blog is so keen to get rid of the Lords Spiritual and remove Britain from Iran’s company as the only countries where unelected theocrats sit in the legislature by right.
However, while citizens – even those of faith – should absolutely demand secularism from their government, it does not follow that the government can unjustly impose secularism on the people as they go about their lives. That would be a grave wrong, and the growing movement to ban the burqa represents an abuse of power by governments against their own citizens.
The Telegraph’s Juliet Samuel agrees:
Now it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for the burkini. It harks back to an age, still dominant in much of the world, when a woman’s worth was measured by her modesty. It belongs to a belief system in which women cannot experience one of the joys of the natural world – feeling the wind and sea on her body. It suggests that the female form is shameful and provocative. But those who want to ban the burkini for these reasons are forgetting one of the most important values of a free society: we don’t all have to believe the same thing in order to live together.
Every day, thousands of Britons wake up and do things I think are crazy and wrong. They drink instant coffee, listen to Magic FM and wear Spandex. Some wear high heels or bowties. Others have plastic surgery, get tattoos, cheat on their spouses, drink too much, shout too much and vote Labour. They get their news from Facebook and watch hours of trashy TV. Many of them pray to a god, convert to Buddhism, believe in crystal healing or sing in Church on Sundays with their eyes closed and their arms in the air. I don’t do or understand any of these things. But I let them get on with it.
[..] Like a theocratic regime, the Cannes burkini ban forces some Muslim women to choose between their religious and their national identity and perniciously suggests that their choice of dress is a political statement, whether they mean it to be or not. It is unsurprising that the French should lead the way in this kind of thinking, because in France nothing is allowed until the law permits it, whereas in Britain, everything is allowed until the law forbids it. So, in the name of enforced secularism, France forbids covering the face in any public setting, whether it’s for religion or Hallowe’en, and bans religious symbols like hijabs (hair coverings) in state institutions such as schools. The burkini ban takes this illiberal trend even further by making it illegal to wear “ostentatious” religious symbols even when going about one’s own private business.
[..] A normal Muslim, who has grown up seeing a hijab as an unremarkable but important symbol of womanhood, finds herself forced to choose between respect for the law and her family’s everyday customs. Is this senseless, banal and brutal ban more likely to awaken a hidden feminist creed and a love of La République in her heart or to make her feel attacked and excluded from mainstream society?
Strong societies cannot permit parallel legal or political systems, such as Sharia courts or caliphates. But they can cope with differences in dress and customs. They should not allow obstructive religious clothing like face‑coverings to disrupt teaching or court hearings. But if a Muslim woman wants to wear a baggy wetsuit and go for a swim on a public beach, that does not make her a threat to Western society. The real enemies of freedom are not the burkini-wearers, but the politicians who want to ban them.
Amen to this. Samuel is quite right to fear the politicians over the burkini-wearers, even if we may disagree with their sartorial and religious motivations. Indeed, we should fear any further legitimisation of the idea that our rights derive from the state, who can suspend our freedoms at will in the name of “security”.
One of the most alarming things about this century has been the rejuvenation of authoritarianism, spurred on by the growing threat of Islamist terror. Whether it is manifested in airport security theatre, the banning of religious jewellery or other symbols from the workplace or the dystopian suppression of free speech in universities, public squares and social media, we have become markedly less free in sixteen years with precious little to show for it.
But more than all of that, if we are serious about tackling the skewed ideology and belief system which preaches that women must be modest to the point of having to bathe fully clothed, then a government ban is the absolute worst way to go.
Such a diktat of law effectively exonerates conservative Islam (or fundamentalists of other religions) from any responsibility to reform and recognise the equality of women, gay people and other minority groups. Ban the burqa (or burkini) and conservative Muslims may obey. But not only will they immediately be able to portray themselves as victims in the process, claiming persecution for their religious beliefs, they will be under no further internal pressure to reconsider and reform centuries-old religious diktats in the changed context of modern society.
If we want a world where the burqa is relegated to fringe extremists and museums, then the pressure must come primarily from Muslim women. Only when they demand their right to dress as they please and force the reluctant accommodation of religious authorities will they be able to win the parity of treatment which has been missing for so long.
The job of Western governments in all of this is not to interfere or seek to be a white knight, banning the burqa or burkini on the behalf of oppressed women. Government’s role is to make sure that Muslim women have full access to the legal system to sue for their equal treatment in court where it is being infringed, and to clamp down insidious efforts to set up parallel justice systems based on Sharia law or any other religious code instead of shamefully welcoming them in the name of “multiculturalism”.
We should be encouraging a more liberal form of Islam to prevail over the more oppressive and fundamentalist conservative wings. We need more Ahmadis and others like them, openly tolerant of other faiths and proudly patriotic. And when these groups of progressive Muslims are attacked we should stand shoulder to shoulder with them rather than shamefully currying favour with their persecutors in the name of “multiculturalism”.
But ultimately, this is an internal enlightenment which must take place within Islam. It is not the job of provincial mayors in France or government departments in Britain to “rescue” their female Muslim citizens from oppression; nor would any such rescue hold any legitimacy. Western society can take certain actions to encourage this revolution among its Muslim communities, but ultimately the heavy lifting must be done by Muslim women standing up to claim their own full rights as citizens.
Widespread bans on the burqa or burkini may make us feel good or even allow some of us to burnish our feminist credentials, but that is the only good that they will accomplish. And meanwhile, the long-overdue day of reckoning between modern Muslim women and the conservative wing of the Islamic faith will be deferred indefinitely, to everyone’s cost.
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