France, the Left and the burkini ban: It’s complicated

By Nora Mulready

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.

In the fight against extremism the Burkini is the wrong target

By Deanne DuKhan

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 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:

  1. 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
  2. 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.


Sex, Drugs and Suffering Bodies

The dark side of globalisation

By Jay

Human trafficking is the most visibly subversive of all forms of illicit trade. It is certainly the most emotive in terms of language and the imagery used in reports and anti-trafficking campaigns, and it has become a highly politicised part of the global agenda. Driven by demand and powered by the energy of globalisation, the trafficking in people is the second most lucrative crime in the world, second only to narcotics, and it is estimated that it generates an annual profit of over $150 billion. The trade in people often carries major advantages over the trafficking of narcotics for transnational crime groups, because unlike drugs, people can be sold repeatedly and the profits go straight to the individual criminals.

The problem of human trafficking is directly linked to the tensions, inequalities and changing economic factors associated with globalisation and often precipitated by international and political transformation. Human trafficking conjures up a lurid tapestry of slavery, scandal and suffering bodies. It is often described as the dark side of globalisation. But these claims do not always hold up to rigorous scientific scrutiny. The literature is often anecdotal or sensationalised and the limited research tends to espouse unsupported claims that have become entrenched in the narrative as accepted dogma. While the numbers associated with human trafficking as well as other transnational crime activities (such as the illegal arms trade) have become politicised and often used to subvert broader systemic issues, it is still very much a serious problem however and merits careful analysis and intervention.

While global illicit trade is an activity that dates back to ancient times and the reality of a thieves’ market, some commercial crimes have been overlooked while others embellished in an attempt to sway other agendas. It seems that smuggling and trafficking are often conflated in news reports. So what’s the difference between the two? Perhaps the most significant one is not about the actual work, but rather the coercion involved in the process. While human trafficking always contains elements of force or coercion, those who are smuggled are generally cooperating and complicit in the crime. Additionally, smuggling always involves international border-crossing while trafficking does not. Smuggled people are not necessarily victims, though they may become victims depending on the circumstances in which they were smuggled. According to international law, trafficked humans are still considered victims of trafficking even if exploitation has not yet taken place.

The trafficking of humans is often described as the worst violation of human rights. It evokes historical parallels with the transatlantic slave trade and the language used by governments and NGOs often feeds into this narrative. But slave markets are not a thing of the past, and auctions of young women trafficked for sexual slavery in Britain have taken place in open and highly policed locations such as Gatwick airport. Are these women hapless victims of a carefully machinated scheme of exploitation, or are they aware of the dangers?

We know that women trafficked from former Soviet states are offered jobs under the ruse of working in the service industry as waitresses or hostesses in bars and casinos. Their exploiters guarantee well-paid work and often take care of the bureaucracy and expenses involved in the production of visas and other travel documents. They will often take the passports from the women in order to obtain these documents. After arriving in the capitals of Western Europe and North America, the trafficked women are then faced with the reality of their circumstances and put to immediate work with little recourse. If they refuse, they are beaten and told that they need to pay back the debt incurred by the manufacture of their visas. The debt is often an arbitrary and changing number invented by their traffickers.

This method of operation is pervasive in the literature on trafficking from countries transitioning from communism and raises questions about the boundaries of consent and prior knowledge of these women, many of whom are educated, about the reality of their predicament. Their lived experiences are somewhat different to the reality of forced prostitution in the sex slums of India, Bangladesh and Thailand, where girls as young as 7 or 8 are often sold into slavery. If anything, this highlights the notion that trafficking presents many faces and the debate might benefit from a tiered hierarchy of victimhood where diverse realities of trafficking were given similarly diverse modes of analysis and methods of prevention. The problem is that these different realities, and by implication their unique factors and statistics, are often conflated and stacked into the same social and highly politicised narratives. This is especially the case with child trafficking. Research indicates that NGOs are often reluctant to indicate that figures for children trafficked into slavery are embellished because it might lead to a decline in funding and refusal to address what is nonetheless a very serious problem.

It is difficult to establish the boundaries of consent for adult women trafficked into sex slavery. The problem is exacerbated by factors such as pressure, coercion, manipulation, intimidation and physical violence, all of which have a direct bearing on the victim’s ability to articulate consent and none of which are easily determined or evidenced. Traffickers hone in on the vulnerabilities of their victims and manage to ensnare their confidence and loyalty, not only by threats but by the psychological tactics they employ. Ask yourself this: is it even possible to achieve categorical consent from a person who is being exploited?

While victims of trafficking may give their initial consent to be taken overseas and work in the sex industry, it is fair to assume that they do not know that they will be locked up during the day, have no control over their own bodies or the mandate to refuse to perform certain sex acts. It is also safe to say that they do not know they will be beaten, blackmailed, abused, raped, starved or forced to take drugs. But this is the depressing reality that often transpires when they arrive at their destination, and while they may have been willing participants and complicit in their illegal movement in the beginning, international law dictates that as soon as these women lose their freedom they become victims of trafficking. Once a victim is in a situation they want to get out of and cannot, their free will is lost and they become, for all intents and purposes, a slave.

The reality is that victims of sex trafficking seldom come forward and report their exploiters. The reasons for this vary from shame, intimidation by their traffickers, threats against the family and the reality of crippling debt bondage. It is clear that the trade in human flesh is a serious form of transnational crime worldwide, although reports on numbers and the scale of the problem vary significantly. But while sex trafficking tends to grab all the headlines and be the most visibly outraging aspect of the problem it is only one facet of a global phenomenon that includes diverse forms of exploitation. People are also trafficked for domestic slavery, begging, service as child soldiers, and for their organs.

The trail of trafficked humans often ends in the prosperous countries of the West, but it almost always begins in developing nations. So how does a discussion on human trafficking fit together with a debate on patterns of global mobility and international economic law?

The conditions of globalisation such as increased international trade and the freer movement of goods and services have widened the gap even more between rich and developing economies. Globalisation has changed the balance of power between countries and markets in favour of the latter. One of the legacies of colonialism is that developing nations are continuing to export raw materials to the West, where they are produced and exported again as ‘finished products’ (for instance, tea grown in Africa is often processed in Europe, then distributed back to its country of origin). It could be argued that the intention is to keep these nations backward, dependant and in a state of development. The accumulation of riches and resources by the colonial powers created a substantial imbalance of wealth in the world and a glaring North and South divide. The forced monocultures of the South allowed the North to develop its industries and create prosperous consumer societies while the countries of the South spiralled into dire straits as their natural economies were being devastated and replaced by a commodity economy. These economies are still devastated. They are often reliant on subsistence farming and become source countries for potential victims of human trafficking.

The classic power politics of the Cold War era have shifted and bear little consequence for issues such as regulating global capital markets. The world is affected by what Osterhammel and Petersson (2009) describe as ‘post-international multiculturalism’, where issues such as human rights, climate change and free trade are addressed in a framework of international regimes. The problem here is that partners to these discourses no longer include only governments or NGOs, but networks of organised crime.

It is unhelpful to consider international illicit trade as just another manifestation of criminal activity because this misses a broader systemic point. Global criminal activities are transforming the international system, changing the rules and creating new players. Transnational criminals have undoubtedly benefited from this globalisation because global economic circumstances have created a fertile ground for increased demand and supply of the trafficking in humans. This throws up questions about the uneasy relationship between transnational organised crime and illegal immigration, two concepts that are often lumped together and thrown into the same political discourse in a bid to subvert public opinion.

Another global factor to human trafficking is the double identification of these people as victims on one hand and illegal migrants and/or criminals on the other. This double identification feeds into a growing discourse about new perceived security threats that illegal migration, terrorism, transnational organised crime and human trafficking pose to the state. For women who have been trafficked into the sex industry the dilemma arises from their status as victims, illegal migrants and prostitutes, but there are plenty of other examples of this problem, such as children who have trafficked from South East Asia to work in cannabis factories, domestic slavery and even nail bars, which is a growing phenomenon in Britain. These children sometimes end up in prison on cannabis charges, underpinning the problem of their multiple identification as victims, illegal residents and drug offenders.

The problem for adult women who have been trafficked into sexual slavery is that they’re thrown into a kind of legal limbo where on one hand they are vulnerable victims and on the other complicit and active participants of crime. As such, they risk being victimised by the state and deported due to their status as illegal residents and involvement in prostitution and other illicit affairs. The question here is how a humanitarian discourse built around the suffering of women has been reconciled with the politicisation of security. Trafficked women appear to transform from suffering victims who should be pitied into risky and subversive creatures who pose a threat to the state and should be contained and disciplined. This results in what Aradau (2004) describes as a ‘politics of pity’, where emotive language and visceral anti-trafficking campaigns present images of suffering bodies in a bid to ensnare the sympathies and pity of a public who might otherwise be unresponsive to the problem. She describes the security regime as a ‘politics of risk’ because it seeks to govern the problem of trafficking by employing technologies of risk management.

The creative tension between these conflicting identifications that seek to simultaneously support and penalise people who have been trafficked makes it difficult for the victims to come forward and collaborate with law enforcement. And indeed, many countries immediately deport illegal residents before they can be identified as trafficked victims.

Global factors form an integral part of the debate on human trafficking and often act as catalysts. In addition to the factors highlighted, another example is the immense growth of sex tourism in countries like Thailand, where it is estimated that a sex slave can earn her traffickers up to a $1,000 a day while costing them nothing. The trade in people is a crime where the commodity is paid for with their own overhead: their earnings pay for their accommodation, their sustenance, and even for the right to have the job, often trapping victims of trafficking in debt bondage. It is clear that whether driven by internal conflicts such as civil wars, migration and displaced people, these circumstances result in a kind of push and pull mechanism where people are ‘pushed out’ by conflict or ‘pulled in’ by the promise of better economic prospects, creating a fertile breeding ground for trafficking.

The debate around human trafficking involves a number of central and overlapping themes such as the legal and political interconnectedness of globalisation, the role that transnational crime syndicates play and patterns of migratory flows, all of which have their own unique factors and diverse frameworks that feed into the problem. The degree to which human trafficking owes it success to the current wave of intense globalisation is yet to be fully understood. One thing is clear however, the lived experiences of these victims and the circumstances in which they were bought, sold and treated like cattle vary tremendously. The problem is further compounded by the difficulty of definitions and whether human trafficking should be defined as a moral or illegal migrant issue. The trouble with these definitions is that they suggest a ‘crime and punishment’ approach to trafficking which runs the risk of not only stigmatising and penalising the victims, but also robbing them of future freedoms.

Nelson Mandela said that when a man is denied the right to freedom he has no choice but to become an outlaw. The criminalisation of trafficked victims can only lead to a social narrative where the victim is twice penalised, first by their traffickers, and secondly by the state, damning them to a cycle of unending and irredeemable victimhood.