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The Battle of the Burkini

LONDON – There has been a lot of fuss lately about the handful of Muslim women who choose to bathe on French beaches wearing a special garment that covers the head (not the face), and much of the body. That garment – the so-called burkini – was invented in 2004 by an Australian-Lebanese woman named Aheda Zanetti, with the goal of enabling even the strictest Muslim women to swim or play sports in public. Little did Zanetti know that her creation would generate a national controversy.

The imbroglio started when mayors in several southern French seaside towns banned burkinis on their beaches. A grotesque photograph soon appeared in newspapers around the world of three armed French policemen forcing a woman to undress on a beach in Nice. Though the ban has now been invalidated by France’s highest court, it is still enforced in several seaside resorts.

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And, indeed, the controversy is far from over. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is now running for a new term, recently called the burkini a “provocation,” while Lionnel Luca, the mayor of Villeneuve-Loubet, spoke of “rampant Islamization.” The equally outraged Prime Minister Manuel Valls has called bare breasts a symbol of French republican liberty. After all, he concluded, wasn’t Marianne, the female symbol of the French Republic, usually depicted with her breasts exposed?

There is little doubt that Sarkozy’s opposition to the burkini is entirely opportunistic. The controversy represents yet another opportunity to stoke prejudice against an unpopular minority, in the hope of siphoning votes from the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen in the 2017 election. But, in a tradition that spans centuries of European missionary zeal, his opportunism has been cloaked in moral terms: “We don’t imprison women behind fabric.”

Sarkozy would have us believe that the ban on burkinis is really meant to liberate Muslim women from primitive restrictions imposed by authoritarian Muslim men, just as British colonial rulers once liberated Indian Hindu widows from being burned alive to accompany their spouses in death. This reflects a broader tendency, which has been gaining traction since the end of the last century, to couch anti-Muslim rhetoric in the language of human rights, as though equal rights for women or gays were ancient Western customs that must be defended against alien religious bigotry.

In Valls’s version of history, public nudity is a cherished French tradition and a sign of freedom. To be fully French, it seems, women must, like Marianne, bare their breasts.

Yet, in the nineteenth century, when Marianne became a symbol of the French Republic, nudity was acceptable only in an idealized form, in paintings or sculptures of Greek deities and other mythical heroines. It was fine to gaze at the breasts of a painted nude Marianne or Venus; but for a real, living woman to expose even part of her ankle was considered highly improper.

Of course, nowadays, these attitudes are rare in the Western world. So even though Valls’s version of history is skewed, one might argue that European Muslims who insist that women of their faith should be covered up are out of step – especially given that women sometimes have little choice in the matter.

Indeed, in some immigrant areas, Muslim women feel obliged to cover their heads, lest Muslim men see them as prostitutes, who may be molested with impunity. But this is not always the case. Some Muslim women actually choose to wear a hijab and, in rare cases, a burkini.

The question is whether the state should be determining what citizens should or should not wear. The French republican answer is that people may wear whatever they like in private, but must conform to secular rules in public.

In recent years, however, those rules have been applied more strictly to Muslims than to members of any other faith. I have not heard of policemen forcing orthodox Jewish women to bare their heads by ripping off their wigs.

Well, some might argue, orthodox Jews are not responsible for massacres in the name of their religion. And that is true. But the assumption that women in burkinis are all potential terrorists is farfetched. A woman lying on a beach in a body-covering swimsuit is probably the least likely person to start shooting or bombing.

As for the argument that Muslim women need the state to free them from Muslim men who force them to wrap their heads in scarves or cover up their bodies, the question is whether this is worth depriving other women of their choice to appear in public in these ways.

I am inclined to doubt that it is. The best way to help women escape from domestic authoritarianism is to encourage them to lead public lives as well, in schools, in offices, and on beaches. It is better for a woman to be educated in a headscarf than not to be educated at all.

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For certain public functions, it is perfectly legitimate to ask people to show their faces. Some jobs come with certain dress codes. Private companies can insist on their own rules; there is no need for national legislation. The excessive imposition of conformity by the state can actually have the opposite effect than what is intended. Forcing people to adhere to a common identity fosters a rebellious insistence on difference.

It is no good telling people named Fatima or Mohammed that they are French and must adhere to the norms laid down by Sarkozy or Valls, if they are not treated as equals by people called Nicolas or Marianne. Wearing a headscarf, beard, or bodysuit can be a harmless way for humiliated people to defend their pride. Take away that pride, and defensiveness can swiftly become less harmless.