This morning I woke up and as I regularly do I had a quick glance at twitter before getting out of bed and attacking the day from a vertical standpoint. I was instantly greeted by images of police officers standing around a woman ordering her to undress in public. This is of course due to the burkini ban in force in certain areas of France. The burkini issue is one that has been in the news a fair bit recently with suggestions of a “culture clash” at an olympic beach volleyball match and increasing hysteria in France in the wake of a series of tragic terrorist attacks.
Firstly I see no evidence of a culture clash. What I see is exactly the opposite, people who have different worldviews coming together being able to enjoy a day at the beach and maybe a game of volleyball. What the photographs of the Egypt verusus Germany match at the Olympics showed four women doing what they enjoyed and dressing however they chose to.
What the photographs from the beach in Nice show is a woman being told how to dress by men. The justification given on the ticket she will have recieved as she was fined will have been that she was not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism”. I fail to see what is immoral about a woman dressing modestly (or immodestly for that matter). And to suggest that it is against secular values seems to me to be a bit of a stretch. She is not performing an official duty or representing the state she is relaxing in her own leisure time.
I understand that the French have a very strict idea of what secularism or laïcité should mean and I have some amount of respect for it. Keeping religion seperate from state and having secular state schools for example seem like excellent policies to me. I also try to be understanding of the fact that the country is in turmoil at the moment but when the Pime Minister says things like, “in the face of provocation, the nation must defend itself”, in relation to this issue I find it pretty disgusting. Does the country really need to be defended from middle aged women taking their kids to the beach? Manuel Valls also said that the burkini was “not compatible with the values of France”. This to me seems to suggest that the people being targeted here are not french even though some of the people who have been fined are from families that have been french citizens for generations.
There are two main reasons in my opinion that the secularism-based justification for this ban doesn’t work. Firstly I don’t believe that secularism is the motivation as much as pandering to islamophobia. I don’t believe for a second that a nun or a bishop would be treated this way if they happened to set foot on the sand. And they certainly wouldn’t hear people in the background chanting “we’re catholics here… go home”. Isn’t that a greater assault on secularism? So far I have not heard of any arrests being made or fines being handed out.
Secondly any country with a rich intellectual tradition like France rests on more than one simple political tradtion. Along with laïcité three more spring to mind; liberté, égalité and fraternité. It seems to me that these three qualities should be given equal consideration in this case. A sense of unity between people who feel free and equal is surely the only real defence against the divisive and repressive forces of islamic extremism. Making people feel isolated and resented can only do more harm than good.
I’ll be honest I’m no fan of the burka or the Burkini but I respect a woman’s right wear what she wants as much as I expect that freedom for myself. Forcing women to expose themselves is as bad as forcing them to cover up. Much as it may irritate the far-right and the sofa masturbators you have no right to see a womans skin if she doesn’t want you too because her body is not public property.