For a separation of burkini and state


“The French Revolution said Liberté, égalité, fraternité not Liberté, égalité, burkiné!”

This is, I imagine, how the mayor of Cannes ends his rousing speech at a poorly-attended council meeting. Coffee spills everywhere as the eager, mostly male audience scrambles to its feet for a standing ovation, their hands clapping his words into history. Women are saved, children can finally play on the streets, and I never fall for a phishing scam again.

If only life were so easy. The problem is made harder still by the fact that neither Voltaire nor the Prophet Muhammad so much as mentioned the burkini, meaning men are left to their own devices to decide what we should wear on the beach. I assume this explains why I have never felt fully satisfied by the answers provided by women’s magazines to my swimwear-related queries – I was asking the wrong people the whole time.

“How plunge is too plunge? When does a cut-out bikini become just a bikini with bits on?”

These are questions that only Manuel Valls, both the Prime Minister of France and the nation’s fashion, can answer. Unfortunately, he is currently occupied by this burkini business so is unavailable to comment. However, one timeless fashion rule can be drawn from this: skin good, burkini bad.

Olivier Majewicz, the mayor of Oye-Plage, one of the growing number of places banning burkinis on the French coast, describes a traumatic experience at the beach.

“On Sunday, I went to the beach …. There was a lady in a black burkini. We could see only her eyes. This shocked and disturbed me. I was unable to say anything.”

To truly understand what he went through, I put myself in his shoes.

I imagined that I, the mayor of Oye-Plage, had planned a trip to the beach. Sun, sea, sand and skin! Or so I thought. Upon arrival I saw a sea of elbows, except one – the elbow I truly desired. Her eyes told stories of great elbows, and yet she hid them teasingly beneath black material. I had all the elbows I could possibly dream of, but that night, I dreamed only of one.

Who wouldn’t be moved to ban the burkini two days later?

This is only one of many justifications behind the recent burkini bans, ranging from hygiene to ISIS.

I profess that I am not an expert on swimwear hygiene, and I do not doubt that these mayors banning burkinis in the name of hygiene have teams of swimwear hygienists working around the clock to advise on policies, but I struggle to see the difference between wearing a burkini and wearing a wetsuit in terms of hygiene. Perhaps burkinis are fuelled by the power of Islam rather than the power of surfing, but even so, Islam places great importance, in fact, on cleanliness. The mayors, who have certainly studied the religion in great detail, cannot be making such a point. The hygienic justification, therefore, remains a mystery, so we turn to the more pressing justification of secularism.

Burkinis go against French values of secularism as they are Islamic garments and even a ‘symbol of Islamic extremism’, the argument goes. Now, I dislike burkinis. I dislike the idea that women should cover up in a way that men shouldn’t, and that the onus is on women to cover themselves from the eyes of men. I dislike even more situations in which this decision to cover up has not been made by the woman herself. Something I do like, however, is for women to make decisions for themselves, as many burkini-wearers do.

Call me a socialist, but I also believe that people should be allowed to have fun at the beach. As it is unlikely that a Muslim woman’s stance on complex religious issues will be changed by the words of their mayor, the ban discourages veiled women from enjoying a day at the beach. Although initially some women have continued to wear burkinis to the beach despite the fine, this appears an unsustainable solution but does show the resilience of their belief in covering up in the face of opposition. If this ban results in fewer veiled women going to the beach, as it seems likely it will, it amounts to pushing veiled Muslim women further out of the public sphere. This seems like exactly the kind of thing we wish to prevent and that Islamic extremists, conversely, would like to enforce.

Another justification given for the ban is a threat to ‘public order’, which seems a backwards way to go about it. If a black man is travelling on a train, which happens to also be carrying a racist, as they seem to do, and the racist begins to abuse the man, a disruption to the ‘public order’ occurs. This should not mean that the black man should be banned to avoid such a disruption and I would even go as far as to say that the racist should be punished. Shocking stuff. Instead, a different disruption to public order occurs with such a ban, and that is a rift between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

Such rifts fuel Islamic extremism, and I imagine it is what members of ISIS eat for breakfast. The banning of the burkini is, to many, more evidence of Islamophobia. This forms part of a vicious cycle of radicalisation, as I have previously written about. It is this rift that fuels Islamic extremism, not a woman in a burkini. It should also be mentioned that the burkini’s inventor, Aheda Zanetti, writes that her customers wear the burkini for a number of reasons, not all of them religious. Simply banning the burkini does not therefore help the cause against Islamic extremism or even harm the sales of the garment, which have increased by 200%. If a shift away from the further veiling of women is to occur, it will not be from the mayors of French towns but from within the Muslim community itself.

In the meantime, Valls hasn’t answered my own queries about what I should wear to the beach, and perhaps he shouldn’t.

Photograph by Giorgio Montersino via flickr and creative commons

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