The Fashion Police Take It Too Far
Written By Maddy Crehan
France has sparked controversy in recent weeks over the ban of the ‘burkini’ in certain beach towns and cities. The ban caused outrage across the globe and was eventually overturned by the country’s highest ruling court, stating that it is a “serious and manifestly illegal violation of fundamental freedoms”. Amnesty International Europe Director John Dalhuisen, was one of many human rights activists who praised the ruling, suggesting that “By overturning a discriminatory ban that is fueled by and is fueling prejudice and intolerance, today’s decision has drawn an important line in the sand”. However more than 20 mayors in French coastal resorts are refusing to lift the restrictions.
So what exactly is a burkini? Around 10 years ago an Australian woman of Lebanese origin created a swimsuit for Muslim women. It was designed to permit them to keep their bodies covered while working as lifeguards on Australian beaches. They cover the head, torso and limbs – much like a swimsuit with a hood. The trend soon spread and burkinis are now sold by many major retailers in Britain. Elsewhere in Europe, burkinis are rare, but France is the first country to issue a municipal ban on the attire.
There are a few reasons why French authorities are behind the ban, one of which is that public displays of Islamic faith go against the nation’s aim to promote ‘secularism’ in public life. Secularism is the belief that religion should not play a role in government, education, or other public parts of society. Let’s just quickly explore some of the the different characteristics of an ideal secular society (according to Wikipedia):
- Refusal as a society to commit itself as a whole to any one view of the nature of the universe and the role of man in it.
- Is not homogeneous, but is pluralistic.
- Is tolerant. It widens the sphere of private decision-making.
- Problem solving is approached rationally, through examination of the facts. While the secular society does not set any overall aim, it helps its members realise their aims.
- Is a society without any official images. Nor is there a common ideal type of behavior with universal application.
- Deep respect for individuals and the small groups of which they are a part.
- Equality of all people.
- Each person should be helped to realise their particular excellence.
- Breaking down of the barriers of class and caste.
The demonisation and exclusion of one particular minority group goes against each of these secular characteristics. Not to mention it is completely contradictory to the French ideals of ‘liberty’, ‘equality’ and ‘fraternity’. The mayor of a seaside town on the French Riviera, who is refusing to lift the ban, is telling beach-goers, “if you don’t want to live the way we do, don’t come”, essentially forcing people to assimilate and ruining any chance of multicultural diversity and acceptance.
Another reason the French government gave for issuing the ban was to ‘promote women’s rights worldwide’. Prime Minister Manuel Valls says that burkinis represent the ‘enslavement of women’ and suggests that this ban will ‘liberate’ them from such enslavement. But isn’t this just another form of policing women’s bodies? It is suggesting that Muslim women are victims that require ‘saving’, delegitimizing their own beliefs and choices.
One French mayor told CNN that the burkini is “humiliating for the women that are wearing them…I don’t think that many of them do that (wear a burkini) because they want to — but because they have to…We have to protect those people”. This man is speaking on behalf of an entire group of people without even trying to understand the reasoning behind their choices or beliefs. His patronising attempt to ‘protect those people’ is no more than intolerance and dictatorship. Speaking of the previous French restrictions on the burqa, Indian author Arundhati Roy stated the following:
“When, as happened in France, an attempt is made to coerce women out of the burqa rather than creating a situation in which a woman can choose what she wishes to do, it’s not about liberating her, but about unclothing her. It becomes an act of humiliation and cultural imperialism. It’s not about the burqa. It’s about coercion. Coercing a woman out of a burqa is as bad as coercing her into one.”
This coercion is particular evident in a photo that was posted recently that made headlines around the world. The image shows armed policemen standing over a woman sitting on the beach as she removes items of clothing. The 34-year-old mother of two, whose family have been French citizens for at least three generations, told French news agency AFP she had been fined on the beach in Cannes for wearing leggings, a top and a headscarf. After initially refusing to undress in front of the officers who were reportedly holding tear gas canisters, she was issued with an on-the-spot fine while other people on the beach allegedly shouted insults, telling her to “go home”. The image does not show a sense of protection, but has rather a more predatory, authoritative nature.
In an article written for Mammamia, Muslim feminist, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, stated the following:
“Denying people the right to wear the hijab or disparaging its legitimacy is definitely more about reducing the visibility of Islam in the community than about ‘protecting women’, and it comes from a place of fear, ignorance and bigotry…My choice to cover has nothing to do with your choice not to cover.”
In no way is telling women how they should or should not dress a form of protection. From ‘liberating’ a woman by telling her to wear less, to suggesting that victims of sexual assault should have ‘covered up more’, the connection between women’s well-being and the clothes that they wear has absolutely no merit. If this issue was really about alleviating women of oppression, they should be given the right to make their own choices rather than having more restrictions forced upon them. No man has the right to speak on behalf of a woman. Much like the West has no right to enforce judgment, intolerance and disrespect on the rest of the world. Respect for all ethnicities, religions, shapes and sizes is key for a better future, let’s start at the beach.
Maddy regularly writes for Rosie, and is passionate about music, history, art and gender equality.
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