Yet another incendiary issue is upon us, being hotly flung back and forth on social media, and predictably a common starting point for exchange is a straight flush of generalised assumptions. This debate, over the burkini ban, didn’t heat up because of the ban itself but in response to images of it being carried out -and indeed it wasn’t pretty. I am one of those who recoiled at the sight, but it didn’t take a photo to trigger unease over police being given a remit to force women to peel off long coverings if they wished to remain beachside. The thought had already given rise to questions and to visions of frankly ridiculous scenarios. Who, for instance, would distinguish between inappropriate ‘provocations’ and perfectly appropriate uses of long sleeves and scarves to protect, say, sensitive skin from the sun? It’s hard not to picture it: “Officers, I overdid it yesterday, I look like a boiled lobster, it’s just to keep me from blistering” – “Ah, ok Madame, as you were then, bonne journee”. And off the cops go, looking for a legitimate misuse of cloth.
What a triumph over extremists this vision suggested. Imagine the fear instilled in them, looking at the reality, pictures of four police officers showing who’s boss, wielding zero tolerance for fabric. A sillier use of police time and resources in an area where a terror attack has recently occurred I feel hard pressed to find.
In search of a measured defence of the ban, to consider arguments supporting it, I came across this http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/08/france-right-ban-burkini/ in The Spectator, which effectively lists examples of incidents in France as illustration of a mounting problem in the form of Muslim fundamentalism. The author’s argument is that the more fundamentalist norms go unchallenged, the more their practitioners are emboldened to be intolerant of any other values. Nicolas Sarkozy gave us a similar argument, that the burkini should be outlawed in order to prevent an irreversible cementing of a growing sense of entitlement to impose fundamentalist practices on others. A confidence in warning targets of their choice to comply or face hostility and possibly aggression.
No one who isn’t a fanatic wants to see that outcome. And few would attempt to argue that the burka is not an instrument of oppression. So if France is indeed increasingly beset by fundamentalist vigilantes, looking to culturally embed the same powers over women they would expect in countries where the veil is required by law, is the ban not a fair line in the sand?
Before I attempt an answer, I should point out exactly why I feel even remotely well placed to do so. I know the French clash of cultures well. During high school I lived in Nanterre, then a delightful shithole of a place, a banlieue of Paris, where a passage through one of its three RER stations by a woman alone late at night will often instantly yield first-hand experience of the type of harassment the Spectator piece refers to.
My time there was in the late 80’s in case anyone feels a need to frame this as a recent phenomenon. It isn’t. It wasn’t my first experience of it either. Earlier I’d spent my childhood in the Israeli city of Bat Yam, another gem of a locale, still today awash in the undercurrent of a proprietary Middle Eastern brand of seething hatred for women who don’t know their place; and that was in the 70’s, when it was far worse, when people knew how to do a shithole properly.
As a lily-white girl from semi-rural Connecticut, wearing shorts when it was hot out, in places like the number 10 bus from Bat Yam to Jaffa, I was unusually conscious of how steeped in hostility to women the local culture was. There was a contrast from what I’d known back home that told me it didn’t happen everywhere. Not all of said hostility, by the way, was from Muslims. I found region to be more common a denominator than religion. There were plenty of Yemenite and Moroccan Jews who treated all females with contempt, while some Muslims, and some Jews, would go further, approaching females with a sense not just of superior status, but of a kind of collective ownership. It was a view one encountered regularly.
There is nothing about a set of views that inevitably resulted in menacing harassment that is defensible. How regrettable it is to see the West be so passive and accepting of the mainstreaming of such behaviour in certain communities, missing opportunity after opportunity to build up Muslims and Middle Easterners who fight this from within, who promote legitimate religious practice and respect for equality of the sexes and for human rights. After all, no one should get special dispensation to not abide by the law, under any circumstances. And as for the burka, the idea that women should be treated as akin to cattle, to be subject to full control by men, is indisputably disgusting and enraging.
These are my views and my personal experience of men using cultural cover to subjugate and denigrate women. It’s intolerable.
But I find it difficult to conclude that the burkini ban is anything but a nonsense.
There have been thoughtful articles this week. We’ve heard the perspectives of feminists, conservative and reformist Muslims, liberals and secularists. We’ve even seen some rather grand invocations of laicite, the uniquely French iteration of secularism.
What is getting lost in this current conversation is what gets lost in a lot of public conversations about reactive policies, particularly those enacted in times of crisis. And they’re not secondary considerations:
- Direct cause and effect, in other words what the policy is actually meant to accomplish, and whether in practice, in situ, it will be even remotely effective in achieving its ends
- the implications for the people directly and tangibly affected; which in this case, is not those men who do impose the veil on the women in their lives, but the wearers themselves
Like a lot of other poorly conceived policies, instead of being precise and occupying a defined, critical space in a broader strategy, the ban is a clumsy, poorly targeted, blunt instrument. The ban’s highest value is in providing cover to nervous politicians who currently haven’t an inkling of how to confront a problem that they happily averted their gaze from for decades. It gives an animated, outraged public something to gnaw on until somebody comes up with something resembling a real, comprehensive plan of action. That in this instance the public is rightly animated and outraged, by both what has happened in their country and by the notion of ‘modesty’ dressing, does not make the policy response an appropriate one, never mind the most effective.
We’re not even getting our terms of reference right. For starters, the Burkini itself is not a version of a burka, which would cover the face and must be loose fitting. It can’t be seen as expression of, or adherence to, militant extremist views. To militant extremists a woman on a beach, mixing with men and women in various states of undress, is unthinkable.
Keeping the focus on the burkini specifically, surely the core question must be whether such costumes are worn voluntarily. If they are, it’s no use trying to argue that oppression or misogyny are the issues, because if they are, the ban wildly misses its mark. At the moment the simplistic proposition seems to be that all burkini wearing women around the world are either oppressed – forced to wear it, or, in choosing freely to wear it, too gullible, stupid or weak to think for themselves. To overcome generalisation, we must make a clearer distinction between environments where women do not have a choice, and those where they do, a French beach being an obvious case of the latter. A wearer there is not subject to laws and/or cultural penalties if she opts for a bikini or even to go topless. She may well face punishment from a husband or family or community, but in weighing a national law, it has to be in context of an environment where she is legally at least, free to choose.
The picture of oppression is not the conceptual monolith we tend to use for discussion. So-called modesty dressing is required for women in different forms by different means in different places. Even in those places where a burkini wearer is not doing so of her own free will, or is consciously complicit in promoting militancy, she is still at best an end user; the last, lowest cog in the well-developed, well-oiled machine of an ideology. Attacking her is a long, long way from attacking the machine or the fuel that’s driving it forward. In practice it only calls time on the options of individuals. It does nothing to strike at the heart of any promulgation of specific options nor the sources. As part of a comprehensive strategy, a ban could at least theoretically act as a step on a ladder or be significant in its symbolic representation. As a policy that is alone on an otherwise empty field of battle, however, it is in reality merely a case of police officers scanning beaches for too much clothing, and nothing more.
If we are meant to be rolling back a new variant of creeping cultural misogyny, an encroachment on civil rights through an expansion of extremism, where are the policies that that do have direct impact? What punishment, for example, awaits those who deny the women in their lives free choice? What are the penalties for harassment of girls and women? How strong is enforcement? In many cases these are so weak as to make religion-based coercion effectively legal.
It is fair to counter argue that the focus on the burkini is a focus on more than clothing, since in the West, ‘modesty’ dressing is the most visible, mainstream emblem of those branches of Islam that do not accept any equality of the sexes. But even if viewed as a straightforward, universal symbol of fundamentalism, extremism, militancy, or all three, a symbol is still all it is. Symbolism is all the burkini ban could ever successfully target. At a time when we are facing so many immediate threats we do not have the luxury of fighting proxies, we must take on the real thing. As long as we continue to misdirect our fire, the true agents and pathways of oppression emerge as unscathed as ever.