On burkinis, bans, and freedom of choice

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.

19 thoughts on “On burkinis, bans, and freedom of choice

  1. I am not Moslem, nor any monotheist type woman. Yet everyday life in America, on some days, makes me envy a veil. I often wish for the privacy, the “keep your F’ing eyes to yourself” that a veil can afford.

    I’ll only support a Burkini ban when Catholic nuns are told to bikini up, too …

  2. I see where youre coming from. and the post was excellent. However, I think the real problem is racism. Their wouldnt be pressure on the muslim women to remove their burkini’s and other forms of modest clothing; if the media and those who control it; assume that every muslim is a terrorist.

    Im not muslim, arabic or middle eastern, and Im offended by the constant portrayal of muslims as terrorists. The other issue is isamic/middle eastern men’s hatred of their women. Ive never seen an entire gender be forced to cover up or bow to their men’s every whim. Im west indian and yes we have a masculine culture, but the men dont dictate what the women can wear or do.

  3. The breathtaking hypocrisy is in the implication that Muslim cultures need to be more tolerant of difference, but the French don’t. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. I’d glad the court has come out against it. They need to borrow a little from an icon of humanity from another culture “be the change you want to see in the world.”

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  6. I think women being forced to wear burkas or other clothing in the Muslim faith is a separate issue from this. As you have already said, many Muslim women take wearing the clothing of their religion very seriously and take great pride and comfort in it. As you have also said, forcing these women out of a burkini is as bad as forcing them into. France has been through so much but this is not the right reaction nor the one I would expect of this country. Thank you for writing this.

  7. Thank you for writing this, it’s such a complex problem and most things I read about it are black and white, hard and fast… which, as you might say, lead to more ‘own goals’ for the West.

  8. Howdy! Howdy! Howdy!

    I think that if I were in France and the burkini ban were in force, I’d wear one to the beach. In fact, given the amount of anti-Muslim violence and intimidation happening in the US, I’ve seriously thought about wearing a hijab. But, I worry about offending Muslims if I were to. Luckily, I live abroad most of the time, so I don’t really have to choose.


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  11. Reblogged this on Niche Me and commented:
    hi i am only trying to reblog this so i hope im doing it right. I like your post but find the whole argument a little stupid and annoying. the sexism in the world is just so sickening to me. Let a woman wear or not what she will or not and learn to control YOURSELF! YES im discusted with the berkini issue

  12. So true! Freedom of choice, or avoiding someone from being coerced into covering up… It is difficult to play around it.

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