Listen to women — but which women?

Two women wearing all-over swimsuits. The one on the left has a black suit with pink sleeves and a pink floral motif on the chest. The one on the right is a lifeguard and has a yellow and red uniform suit with "Surf Rescue" and the DHL logo on the front. She is holding a red metal pole.Last Friday the highest court in France, the Council of State (Conseil d’État), struck down the ban on full-body swimsuits or so-called burkinis which had been imposed by some 30 municipalities in southern France on various pretexts such as morality, public order and security, ruling that it “seriously, and clearly illegally, breached the fundamental freedoms to come and go, the freedom of beliefs and individual freedom”. This followed incidents in which women were arrested and fined for wearing the garment in public, and one woman was surrounded by four armed police on a beach and ordered to remove her headscarf (she was not wearing a “burkini”); in similar incidents, sunbathers in the vicinity shouted “go home” and “we are Catholics here”. The BBC carried two important interviews, one of them on BBC London with a female human rights scholar in Toulouse who debunked some of the myths being peddled by supporters of the ban (e.g. that the women approached by police on beaches had gone there to seek out trouble), and another on Radio 4 at lunchtime in which a spokesman from the Human Rights League accused local politicians of fomenting trouble that had not previously existed and dismissed a ruling from the local administrative court in which wearing the ‘burkini’ was compared to allegiance with terrorism, saying, “if someone can think that without being drunk, we might as well quit any reasonable discussion in a democracy”.

One of the annoying features of any debate on French attitudes towards Muslims (and Muslim women’s dress in particular) is the recurrent attempts to “explain” why the French keep doing such things, informing us about the “strict separation of church and state” and the “struggle against authoritarian Catholicism” that preceded the 1905 law on the status of religion. This piece in the Economist (“The Economist Explains”) is one example. Similar insistences were made in response to criticism of the obvious bigotry of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that led to several of its team being murdered last year. This ‘understanding’ is not extended to Muslims; if anything, the term ‘understand’ is spat out as a term of abuse when someone mentions the role of poverty and ghettoisation in terrorism. In 2005 a pro-war British blogger, Norman Geras, coined the term “mbunderstanding” to refer to “understanding” which is “plainly of a blame-focusing or blame-shifting kind”, the “mb” referring to Madeleine Bunting, a writer for the Guardian at the time who sought to explain such incidents as the 2005 London bombings in terms more nuanced than “a bunch of guys who hated us tried to kill us” and to identify root causes other than “Islamist ideology”. The term was picked up by the Islamophobic, pro-war, Zionist blog Harry’s Place and used regularly as a pejorative.

The “understanders” want us to accept that France is different from Britain or the US and that its campaign against Muslim women has a strong historical backing in France’s so-called battle against clerical supremacy. The truth is that France is not that different from other countries where politicians use witch-hunts against weak and unpopular minorities to secure votes, or where such campaigns are aimed at soft targets including women. The idea that a struggle against a powerful Church 100 years ago should inspire hostility towards young girls in headscarves and women in unusual bathing costumes now is preposterous. The clergy that were struggled against sought to control education, not simply receive it, and to dictate what people could wear, not enjoy a swim on a public beach. And the Church was dominated by men, as it still is; France’s present attacks on the Muslim minority target women and children, and ignore men.

People exhort us to “understand” the French because they are White, and perhaps because of a lingering inferiority complex in the English-speaking world where the ‘higher’ (i.e. longer) words come from the French-speaking Norman former ruling class, and therefore their peculiarities and bigotries must have deep roots and rigorous intellectual justifications despite the justifications being stated openly and being plainly irrational. They themselves feel no need to listen to Muslim women and understand them before telling them what is best for them and comparing any who refuse to “negroes defending slavery” or similar. We hear the word “ideology” used as an insult, and even women who wear the hijab or who swim in all-over bathing suits are accused of being in thrall to an “Islamist ideology”, yet the nationalist ideology is indulged despite relying on the molestation of women and girls and is not named; the “need” for France to maintain its “national identity” is explained to us again and again as if we were children and as if it had entirely escaped our imaginations. No, France isn’t different. It isn’t special. It isn’t exceptional. Its bigotry is like any other.

Another common trope in this ‘debate’ is the demand that people must adhere to the law, as they would in Saudi Arabia where the law bans the wearing of bikinis. The fact is that the majority of Muslims in France are of North and West African origin, and there is no ban on bikinis in many of these countries; western holidaymakers go to resorts in Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal and the Gambia every year and lie on beaches in bikinis and ‘body’-type swimming costumes; the same is true of Egypt and one or two of the smaller Gulf states. Most Muslims have no connection to Saudi Arabia other than being required to visit two of its cities for the pilgrimage once in a lifetime (and the Saudi régime does not originate from those cities, but from the interior, where it remains based to this day), so if you use this argument you are showing your ignorance. Muslim countries, with one or two exceptions, do not force western women to wear veils or long coats when visiting, so there is no excuse for western countries to do this. It is not a question of reciprocity.

Finally, there are the suggestions on social media that Muslim men make way for Muslim women in these debates. To an extent I agree, because Muslim men have been very forthright in encouraging women to wear the hijab (as, to be fair, have women on public forums, blogs etc, although they do not have the clout as scholars) while rarely lifting a finger when Muslim women in hijab are attacked in public or harassed by the state, as in France. However, a look at the British print and broadcast media reveals no shortage of Muslim women who do not wear hijab getting columns in newspapers and broadcast slots, while those in hijab are rarely seen and when they are, it is met with widespread derision (as with Nadiya Hussain) or protest (as with the news presenter Fatima Manji on Channel 4). Indeed, when the media wants to talk to a “Muslim woman” about issues that affect a lot of Muslim women, be it hijab or FGM, or about “back home” politics, the go-to person will be one without hijab with clear secularist leanings who speaks their language rather than that of Islam (e.g. Nimco Ali, Sara Khan), and who have a tendency to exaggerate problems while downplaying Muslims’ efforts to remedy them.  Every defence of the right to wear hijab that is accompanied by a photo of a Muslim woman without, or is heavily ridered with denunciations of the “patriarchal intent” behind it or suggestions that banning it makes it more popular (implying that this is a bad thing), is ammunition for those who seek to ban or restrict it, and the women and girls who wear it. The cause needs firm, unconditional advocacy, with the images and voices of wearers seen and heard prominently, not mealy-mouthed, half-hearted defences from those who despise the hijab in reality. With the exception of some very conservative figures, most religious Muslim men are happy for the voices of religious Muslim women to be heard. Will the hijabless women who are (or were until recently) the sole representatives of Muslim womanhood in some mainstream newspapers and on the TV step aside too?

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