Women in France should wear what they want (and that includes “burkinis”)

Women in France, listen up: if you plan to visit the beach in the country of “liberté” and “egalité,” you must be prepared to show some skin.

That’s right–although France’s very secular laws do permit the wearing of headscarves in public, if Muslim women choose to visit the beach in a headscarf while also covering their arms and legs, in many districts they will be issued a fine and ordered to leave the beach, and possibly even be forced to strip off (technically, the bans are specifically directed at the “burkini”–a swimsuit with sleeves and pants with a built-in head covering–but law enforcement officials seem happy to interpret that as applying to any modestly-dressed Muslim woman on the beach).

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I have written about the issue of policing Muslim women’s clothing before (in a post entitled Women in Canada can wear what they want [and that includes niqabs]), but I have to say I find this ban on modest dress at the beach even more racist, and even more alarmingly sexist. We’re not talking about forcing a woman to show her face in a public place (which is already law in France and which I personally do not agree with), we are talking about forcing women to show their BODIES. Essentially, if you’re a Muslim woman who doesn’t wish to make her body (or hair) available to the public gaze, you can f*ck right off the beach.

Ostensibly, these new laws see clothing like the burkini as a religious display and a direct provocation of French citizens and their values of secularization (never mind that many of the Muslim women being harassed under these rules ARE French citizens, or that nuns in habits or other Catholic women dressed modestly or wearing crucifixes are not being punished for their displays of Christian faith). I cannot imagine how frightened and angry the people of France must be after recent terror attacks in the country (including in Nice, where a man driving a truck intentionally plowed into a crowd of festival goers and killed 86 people). I can only assume that they see signifiers of the Muslim faith (like headscarves and full-coverage swimming attire) as an affront to the painful losses they have experienced and the threat of terrorism they continue to face.

But there is simply no logical basis for a ban on the burkini: firstly, Muslims (including Muslim women in traditional dress) were also among the victims in Nice. Secondly, the “religious symbols” deemed most offensive to the French public seem to be disproportionately those which are worn by Muslim women, specifically (it’s still totally okay for men to wear full-body wetsuits in the water). Thirdly, to the best of my knowledge, a burkini has NEVER yet been implicated in any terror attack in France or any other country. This is not about safety. This is not about secularism. This is about white people who are afraid and angry being given permission by their local governments to humiliate and ostracize their fellow citizens. And the targets of this hatred are the people who are the easiest to spot and the easiest to scapegoat–Muslim women.

So much for “liberté, égalité, fraternité”. I know that the people of France are hurting, but a democracy that abandons its principles in the face of adversity and new challenges is no democracy at all.

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