In the past couple of weeks several coastal regions of France, including the districts that include Cannes, Nice and Menton, have banned women from wearing the full-body swimsuits known as ‘burkinis’ that are popular with Muslim women on their beaches. The mayor of Cannes justified it on the grounds of “security”, claiming that the swimsuits do not represent “good morals and secularism” and claiming, “manifesting religious affiliation in an ostentatious way, while France and its religious sites are currently the target of terrorist attacks, could create risks of trouble to public order”. In other words, they do not want to see anything that looks like Islam when “Islam” had just attacked them. (More: Aishah Schwartz.)
Full-body swimsuits have been around for a few years. They consist of a tunic with a hood (or a separate hood), and a pair of trousers made of similar material to swimsuits. They are more like the shalwar-kameez which is the standard dress in South Asia (not just for Muslims), and similar dress exists for men and women in other parts of the world. They were meant to (and do) enable Muslim women to swim, rather than stop them doing anything. Ever since they first appeared, I found the term “burkini” irksome, and Muslims’ insistence on using the term even more so. They do not resemble bikinis and, more importantly, look nothing like any garment called a burka, a term almost always used pejoratively. What they more resemble is a divers’ wetsuit, something there is no talk of banning because it is not Muslims who wear it.
There are two garments commonly called burkas or burqas worn around the Muslim world; one is the all-in-one “shuttlecock” body, head and face covering worn in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the other is a partial face covering made of cloth over a metal frame, worn by older women in the Emirates. I have never seen either in the West (and until about 10 years ago in the UK I saw women with faces covered all the time; these days you only see them in “Muslim areas” such as Whitechapel); the veil worn in the west is usually detachable, made of fabric, often in layers so that the wearer can cover her eyes and/or the fastening at the back if she chooses, and is known as a niqaab. I’ve never seen a swimsuit with a face covering.
Muslim women always swam. Before the full-body swimsuit, women who wore abayas swam in their abayas. That meant swimming (and then walking) against layers of wet fabric, which can be cumbersome. Swimming in any modern western swimming costume is out of the question for any observant Muslim woman, and probably most who do not cover their hair would not even think of it, even in all-female company. Even for men, swimming shorts (let alone Speedos) are not sufficiently concealing. This is why, in areas with a high Muslim population here, Muslims book single-sex modest swimming sessions at some public pools.
In response to some of the French politicians’ justification for the bans when they had been challenged, some people took this to be about the western ruling classes’ obsession with “saving” Muslim women, which has been used to justify some (but not all) previous attacks on Muslim dress in France. For example, a female member of the French National Assembly called the garment a “gender prison” and the so-called minister for women’s rights alleged that it “is the beach version of the burqa and it has the same logic: hide women’s bodies in order to better control them”. Pina Sadar, a Durham PhD candidate writing at The Conversation, says that both politicians “enunciate a highly patronising notion: the concept of Muslim women needing to be saved”. But it was clear that the politicians who imposed the ban in the first place did not care about “saving” Muslim women; they cared about banishing a garment they associated with Islam from a public space in response to an atrocity that was carried out by (male) Muslims and had nothing to do with swimming or dress.
Her article also alludes to the “ideologies” that Islamic or Islam-inspired dress is supposed to represent; distinctive dress is often assumed to be the result of adherence to an “ideology” rather than a mainstream religion which, it is assumed, doesn’t really impose such rules because the one they are familiar with does not. As with the hijab, the emphasis is on what it “symbolises”, the symbolism always being in those people’s imagination. The truth is that very strict Muslims would not think the full-body swimsuit is acceptable, especially in mixed company, becuase the material clings to the body and it is not fully concealing anyway. It is ordinary practising Muslims who wear it, and as media reports have suggested, an increasing number of non-Muslim women who want protection from the sun and from skin cancer, or to hide scars or lumps and bumps, or just to keep men’s eyes off their bodies, have been buying them as well. Ironically, the Lebanese-Australian designer of the suit has said that some 40% of her buyers are not Muslim.
Widad Ketfi, on Middle East Eye, calls the ban the latest example of the “French paradox” in which the French state demands that Islam itself be invisible while Muslim women be visible by showing their bodies:
The country calls itself a guarantor of freedom of expression only when it is not claimed by Muslims. The contradiction lies in wanting to render women’s bodies visible and at the same time to discredit and isolate and make the Muslim man invisible.
This is all hypocritical. They do not want to set Muslim women free. Instead, they want to undress them because in reality the purpose is not, never was, and never will be the emancipation of women, but only control of their bodies.
She also notes that France lags behind a number of other countries in gender parity, having never had a female leader in its history and only one female prime minister; only 10% of CEOs, fewer than 30% of parliamentarians and only 13% of mayors are women. The demand for control and exposure of women’s bodies is not really confined to Muslim women, though; during the school hijab “debate” in 2004, a psychoanalyst named Elisabeth Roudinesco asserted that the veil was a denial of women as an object of desire and, according to Joan Wallach-Scott in her book The Politics of the Veil (see earlier entry), that “the visual appreciation of women’s bodies by men brought women’s femininity into being”, an idea that would not strike many women, Muslim or otherwise, as particularly feminist. I have long held the suspicion that French women feel threatened by displays of femininity other than their own, and ones that are in some respects easier; Muslim women are less subject to guilt-ridden attitudes to food, in particular. Yes, we have dietary restrictions, but what we can eat, we (men and women) can eat plenty of.
The ban on full-body swimsuits therefore has nothing to do with protecting Muslim women from anything. It has to do with responding to a terrorist attack with hate against the entire religious community the attackers were associated with, despite evidence that the attackers were not even religious. Much as what passes for feminism in France is essentially a white-supremacist ideology that happily aligns with male politicians and uses male state violence to suppress the aspirations of women outside the mainstream and sees no need to listen to Muslim women’s voices, but these actions were on the initiative of men and reflect the hostility in French society as a whole towards Islam and Muslims. Let’s not pretend there were any good intentions behind these bans. The ‘feminist’ and ‘secularist’ justifications behind the hijab ban may have been an “excuse for prejudice”, but this is, no pun intended, naked prejudice.
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