My reaction to the burkini ban and ‘that photo’ was not quite in step with most people on the Left. Yes, the state shouldn’t be telling women what to wear but I can’t shake the niggling feeling that the reaction is a bit over the top. The French Courts have already ruled that the ban is unlawful and must be lifted. There will be push back from the mayors, and this one will likely run on for a while longer while they fight is out in the courts. Personally, I have mixed feelings. Do I think it was a great idea? Probably not. Am I outraged? Not really. Am I going to jump to the defence of an item of clothing that only exists because women and girls have been taught that it is ‘immodest’ to swim in public without covering their entire bodies? No.
I have by now read countless tweets, articles, facebook posts etc with reference to some variation of “a woman was forced to strip at gunpoint by the French police.” I’m sorry, but this didn’t happen. The French police carry guns. If they give you directions, did they tell you to tourner à gauche at gunpoint? No, of course not. There was never any threat that the woman would be shot, and to suggest there was is either deliberately dishonest or genuinely daft. This is France, where they subscribe to Human Rights law, it’s not the wild west of an ISIS’ ‘caliphate’. She was never in any danger from the police. Further, there was no ‘force’. A woman was asked to comply with a publicly advertised dress code, or leave the beach. She was given a choice. She choose to stay on the beach. In Venice recently I wasn’t allowed to enter St Mark’s Basilica without covering my shoulders. I had a choice, wear a shawl given by the church security, or don’t come in. I wanted to go in, I made a choice, I complied. It’s infantilising to suggest that women are incapable of making such a choice without feeling mortally offended, feeling vulnerable, feeling violated. We’re pretty robust, rational creatures these days, capable of weighing up our options and making decisions.
A big problem is that the Left has erected an impenetrable mental barrier to discussions of Islamic dress, from headscarves to burkas, to burkinis, supplementing what should have been years of legitimate, and healthy, public discussion and debate with the Pavlovian response:”it’s their choice”. We have nothing to say about the reason why people make these choices, we make no attempt to try and persuade women and girls that they don’t have to cover up (in fact, the very idea of saying that is considered insulting, even racist), we abandon Muslim women (and men) who makes these arguments, we abandon ex-Muslims who make these arguments. If our state schools taught all girls that they should cover their hair and hide their bodies, would our society accept that? I hope not. And yet for countless girls, we don’t just accept it but defend it in the name of equality.
I see the bukhini ban as an example of this conflict between secular liberalism and conservative religion, something France is having to grapple more than most. ‘Rights’ is a messy moral and legal area. Rights conflict. That’s why we have Human Rights law and Human Rights courts. Your right to swing your fist stops precisely where my nose begins, as they say, and very few such conflicts are as clear cut as that one. France is a secular Republic, its citizens’ right to secular public spaces is integral to its very foundations. Religious dress is integral to conservative Islam. These things clash, of course they do, and unless our answer is simply that one should always give in to the other, there are going to be messy clashes as we navigate our way through. One of the most helpful things everyone can now do is talk about it all, openly, honestly, and as far as possible, without fear. That requires a new acceptance that it is legitimate to discuss – and, if people so wish, to criticise – overt symbols of conservative Islam, including when manifested in women’s clothes. It also requires an understanding that in the current climate of Islamist extremism, a particularly raw subject in France, overt symbols of conservative Islam are going to be seen by many as more than an expression of personal faith or individual expression. This may be unfair, but it is the reality of the times we live in.
I don’t know where we go from here. What I am certain of is that we will make our way through it all far better if people of all perspectives can speak openly about how they feel. I’m not asking for bans, I’m asking for conversations, and for an acknowledgement that silence leads to tensions. I’m asking that political leaders on the Left stop leaving it to the far right to give voice to the secular instincts of secular Europeans, because as we are seeing in France, if the Left don’t help find answers, the Right will. I’m asking that if girls are gong to be taught that they need to cover up, they are also exposed to arguments that say they don’t have to. I’m asking for a bit of honesty on the Left about why an international context dominated by Islamist violence means there are likely to be stronger reactions to overt symbols of conservative Islam than to those of other religions. And I’m asking for the Left to see that if we want to help make things better, as opposed to standing on the sidelines as the diversity and equality we cherish is destroyed by extremists of all sides, we don’t only have a right to make these points, we have a duty.