France’s burkini ban intersects at the junction of many complex issues – East vs West, religion vs secularism, feminism vs patriarchy, the right to freedom of speech and expression vs a perceived need for greater state control.
These are the things I know:
- The images of gun-toting French cops looming over a lone burkini-clad woman on a beach in France are disturbing, to say the least. This is a knee-jerk reaction to a complex issue – forcing religion, and in particular, Muslim women underground, on spurious security grounds, plays right into the hands of IS and other extremist groups who want to sow discord and chaos. It also goes against fundamental Western values, which can be summarized, ironically, in France’s famous call of Liberte, Fraternite, Egalite. In short, it’s an own goal for the French in their fight against IS.
- And yet, the burkini itself – as with all other items that promote female modesty, from an orthodox Jewish headscarf to the hijab, and in particular, the niqab – is something I find hard to get behind. For every woman that chooses to wear it, many others are forced – either overtly by the State, as in Saudi and Iran, or by cultural and societal pressures, as is the case here in Egypt. Those pressures are particularly relevant in Egypt for poorer women – money has nearly always bought a certain level of immunity. Until all women are genuinely given true autonomy over their bodies and their choice of clothing and not forced into archaic notions of modesty with dubious etymology, I find it hard to celebrate the burkini as an item of freedom, as its inventor has declared.
- Having said that, I’m also an advocate of personal choice and the freedom to live your life in the way you choose–with the obvious caveat that this doesn’t impinge on others. I have many friends who have chosen the hijab, in the face of mounting hysteria and thuggery in the West and regular casual discrimination here, and I respect their choice. It would be wrong to assume that prejudice against the veil or burkini is a Western phenomenon alone – veiled women in Egypt are routinely turned away from certain bars and restaurants and no doubt from certain jobs, while burkinis are frowned at in a number of high-class establishments here. I don’t condone targeting individual women or sanctioning discrimination anywhere for what is a systemic issue – in the same way that I don’t advocate taking out frustrations with the patriarchy on individual men.
In the end, as Arundhati Roy says, coercing a woman out of a burkini is as bad as coercing her into one, though the reasoning for both is very different. But as the world seemingly becomes a more and more terrifying place, it becomes too easy to abandon nuance and cling to moral dichotomies and absolutes, which I see on my newsfeed every day. Few issues, unfortunately, are that simple anymore.