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Burkinis, Bigotry, and Beyond

It is extraordinary to think that after so many decades, indeed centuries, of an alleged claim to secularism that France, of all places, saw fit to decide that an item of clothing would be prohibited at the beach. Obviously in the future people will look back at this and and shake their heads at the inane pettiness of such narrow-mindedness. But for the time being, because as a species we haven't yet quite learned to live with one other on one planet, issues such a cultural and religious differences are thrown about as if they are deserving of some great importance. Of course, it is the reaction to people, and especially women, and especially Muslim women, wearing something different at the beach that has generated such outrage.

The Burkini Ban

The burkini was designed in Australia by Aheda Zanetti. It satisfies traditions among Islamic (and other religions) on what constitutes modest dress, but there is also plenty of examples of non-religious people using it as well - such as journalist Nigella Lawson, who wears it to protect her skin. In fact, Zanetti estimates that up to 40% of people who purchase the burkini are not Muslim - and some are men [1]. The design covers the who body except the face, hands, and feet, but is light enough to enable swimming. In other words, in terms of coverage, it's a loose-fitting wetsuit.

The fact that it is the preferred swimming costume of many Muslim women had led to conservative local politicians in southern France to enact bans. The mayor of Cannes, shoring up his support among racists and bigots, claimed that the burkini is a "symbol of Islamic extremism", and suggested it might result in terrorist attacks [2]. Some fifteen other French towns, most prominently Nice, also established a ban. Unsurprisingly extremist right-wing parties such as the National Front support the ban, but so has Manuel Valls, the socialist Prime Minister who claimed: "It is the expression of a political project, a counter-society, based notably on the enslavement of women" [3], proving yet once again that an alleged association with a socialist economics does not mean support for personal freedom. Perhaps the most dramatic incident, armed police surrounded a Muslim women in Nice, ordering her to remove the clothing [4]. They were not subtle about their fact that this was specifically an anti-Islamic action.

The officers surrounded the woman, who was wearing a tunic, leggings and a head scarf, fined her and ordered her to leave the beach. The woman was at the beach with her children, and said she was a third-generation French citizen from Toulouse.

A crowd gathered. “I heard things I had never heard to my face,” said the woman, who gave her name only as Siam to the French magazine L’Obs. “Like, ‘Go back to where you came from,’ ‘Madame, the law is the law, we are fed up with this fuss,’ and ‘We are Catholic here.’ ”

Tearfully, the woman said that “because people who have nothing to do with my religion have killed I no longer have the right to go to the beach.”

When female relatives with her asked the police why they were not hunting down people with crosses, if outward shows of religious faith were the target of the new law, a policeman responded: “We are not going to hunt for crosses. Get going, madame. You are being told to leave the beach.”

Faced by challenges from human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International and the Human Rights Defense League, France's highest administrative court, Conseil d'État, has determined that the ban was a "serious and clearly illegal violation of fundamental freedoms" [5]. Interviewed by L'Express, Nicolas Cadène, rapporteur at the l’Observatoire de la laïcité, a Ministry of Education body that advises the French government on the implementation of the secularism provisions of the French constitution, indicated that the courts had made the right decision - and pointed out that the decision on the anniverary of the 1789 Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen, which included the following as Article 10: No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law. [6]. In one of the more mendacious actions, some have tried to argue that fact that bigots may become aggressive at the sight of a Muslim woman in religious dress, that the religious dress is the threat to public order not the bigot.

French sociologist and Islam expert Raphael Liogier said that such political involvement was adding to what he called "the theatre of war".

"I'm really shocked, but not because women are wearing burqinis. I'm shocked because people feel they have to react to it. Women have the freedom to wear a burqini if they want to," he told The Local.

He said that banning the swimwear was the wrong response, especially in Corsica where he said authorities should have focused on jailing those responsible for the violence.

"Put it like this: If a woman wears a very short skirt and then gets raped, no one would ever try to ban short skirts. They would punish the rapists. That's how a free country with civilized people works. But we are doing the opposite here," he said. [7]

These events illustrate the depth of hatred that a section of French society has towards Muslims, the depth of their misogyny, and, one can be certain if the scab is scratched a little further, their racism. Whilst their violence and bigotry is is undeniably vile and dangerous, the sociology of the situation is not terribly complex. It is unsurprising that, with the relentless march of communications and movement technology, that societies become increasingly heterogeneous. The type of immigration that occurs will correlate with the country's geography and history; it is utterly unsurprisingly to discover, for example, from that foreign-born and direct-descendent immigrants in France, some 19% of the population or 11.8 million people, consist of 5,5 million Europeans, 4 million Maghrebi (Arabs or Berbers), and 1 million of Sub-saharan African origin [8]. If one likes, about half of France's migrant population is a result of geography, and half of it historical imperialism.

Left-Wing Bigots

What is less than helpful is that there is some left-wing bigots who have also supported the attempt of right-wingers to ban the burkini, and other outward expressions of what they perceive is religious identity, or worse still, like the intellectual dull French socialist prime minister, thinks that an item of clothing is a symbolic representation of oppression - and that the solution is to engage in visceral oppression. The argument, such as it is, claims that the garb Muslim women are forced to wear such clothes (by husbands, fathers etc), or those that are more free from such pressures and still engage in it are deluded by their religious beliefs. Laurence Rossignol, Ministre des Familles, de l'Enfance et des Droits des femmes, claimed that the burkini "is the beach version of the burqa and it has the same logic: hide women’s bodies in order to better control them". The Minister continues "It is not just the business of those women who wear it, because it is the symbol of a political project that is hostile to diversity and women's emancipation" [9].

Such is the logic of the bigots, who would have decided to interpret what an item of clothing means symbolically, and if the meaning that they have decided offends their sensibilities, they will engage in violence against women to remove that symbolism - ironically, providing additional opportunity for religious extremists, as has been witnessed before [10] [11]. Despite claims that they are supporting secularism, this is in fact an anti-secularist position. Secularism is a political position that religious beliefs should not influence public and governmental decisions, and that government institutions should not include religious appointments. But it also means that governments make no interpretation of religious meaning. As George Holyoake, who coined the term 'secularism' explained in A Statement of Secular Principles:

"Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever." [12]

The reference is to Christianity, but it also applies to other religions. Holyoake was, of course, writing in the United Kingdom in 1871, where other religions were very marginal. But the point is clear; as an public policy, secularism is concerned about the evidence in this (secular) world - as a result, the arguments of the sort raised by Rossignol fall apart when addressed in such manner. What is the symbolism when an atheist man wears a burkini? Or a wetsuit as a famous meme has suggested? Or a person especially sensitive to sunlight? At what point did the authoritarian left decide that forcing women to undress was liberation? [13] On that matter is there a particular level of nakedness that such people think is emancipatory? What if the burkini exposed ten percent more flesh? Or maybe fifty percent? If being covered represents total oppression, is state-enforced nudity liberation? The argument is absurd of course, but that how reductio ad absurdum works; a proposition is shown to be false by illustrating the absurd results of its acceptance.

Without a doubt there are many Muslim women, who do not want to dress according to particular religious standards, or for that matter, would rather not be Muslims at all. In the worst theocracies in the world, they would be subject to utterly abhorrent punishments if they tried to exercise their conscious choices; the enforcement of Hijab standards by the Basij paramilitary organization in Iran is one obvious example [14]. But this is not Iran that is being discussed, but rather a country that at least claims to be liberal, democratic, and secular. If a person wishes to leave a religion they have the legal right to do so and without legal punishment. Of course, formal legal rights provide only the groundwork for substantive rights. The threat and reality of domestic and community ostracism is real. But unless violence is being used, such influence is not a matter for legislation. Likewise there is no doubt that there is a small number of Muslims, men and women, in secular countries who believe in the enforced universalisation of their dress standards (and presumably the conversion of others to those standards. Like the theocrats of other religions, unless violence is being used by such people, it is not the role of a democratic government to prevent them from expressing deluded opinions, but rather the opportunity is given to expose such ideas to the public to which they will receive well-deserved ridicule.

It is not the role of the government to force people into freedom, especially when the available evidence is that many Muslim women, with informed consideration, willingly choose such clothing styles [15]. At best, public governance can provide people the opportunity to avail themselves of their rights, the education that such rights are available, and financial and political support when they make use of them. It is counter-productive, patronising, and almost invariably racist, to oppress people into somebody else's notion of freedom. If a woman is wearing the Burkini of her own informed choice in which case it's not the governments place to take that choice away, regardless of what many, most, or even the rest of society thinks. If a woman is being forced to wear it by her husband or other family members by domestic or community influence, all that banning it does means she can no loses her ability to go to the beach. Making the burkini illegal it isn't going to change people's views or the demands of the almost invariably male religious leaders of what constitutes modesty; only education and choice can do that. Arundhati Roy now famous comment comes to mind:

When, as happened recently 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 the coercion. Coercing a woman out of a burqa is as bad as coercing her into one. Viewing gender in this way, shorn of social, political and economic context, makes it an issue of identity, a battle of props and costumes. It is what allowed the US government to use western feminist groups as moral cover when it invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Afghan women were (and are) in terrible trouble under the Taliban. But dropping daisy-cutters on them was not going to solve their problems. [16]


Let's be blunt about it. If you support the burkini ban, you're not a feminist or a secularist, you're a misogynistic bigot. Evidently it requires a particular level of moral and cognitive maturity for an individual to realise that their own religious and aesthetic standards are not universal standards, and that in an increasingly diverse, pluralistic, and technological society, people will be making choices which one or even a majority thoroughly dislikes. If political liberalism and civil rights is going to have any meaning, it must continue be conducted with the grounded principle that recognises and respects the right and ability of people to make their own decisions concerning their own body and to have quiet enjoyment of those decisions. It means preventing one's metaphysical beliefs, subjective aesthetics, or personal morality, from bleeding into the civil rights of others. It means that political rights is not based on the content of a person's decision but in the procedure. The only concern that legislation should be asking is whether the person has sufficient cognitive maturity to make such a decision, whether they are informed of their choices, and whether they have option to choose otherwise.

One final matter is raised in conclusion which all other commentators seem to have overlooked; the burkini is a technological item. Historic clothing that provided the same coverage did not provide the same freedom of movement of hydrophobic qualities. Less this seem trivially obvious consideration of other technologies is worth making. Already surgical body modification technologies provide the capability for people to make radical changes to their body corpus; sex reassignment, subdermal implants and so forth. Stem cell research already allows the ability for IVF children to come from more than two parents - a method used to replace an egg's defective mDNA with healthy DNA from another female donor's egg. Along the same lines, in vitro gametogenesis will allow the formation of children from same-sex parents [17]. These technologies and others, will ensure massive disruptions to assumptions of what constitutes a family, and what the 'normal' roles of people in a family are. It is difficult to forsee how absolute notions can survive in these circumstances. Religious, cultural, and technological diversity and divergence will be the only norm. It is in recognition of this trajectory, and the desire for civil relations among all, that attempted the burkini ban will be remembered is a painfully stupid attempt to ignore the trajectory of history.


1] Adam Taylor, "7 uncomfortable facts about France's burkini controversy". Washington Post, Aug 24, 2016

2] Cannes bans burkinis over suspected link to radical Islamism, BBC News, August 12, 2016

3] France's burkini row revives debate on Islam and secularism, Radio France International, August 19, 2016

4] Alissa J. Rubin, French ‘Burkini’ Bans Provoke Backlash as Armed Police Confront Beachgoers, August 24, 2016

5] Top French court suspends 'illegal' burkini ban as 'serious' violation of freedoms. ABC News, August 27, 2016

6] L'Express, Burkini: "Dans un Etat de droit, on ne peut interdire tout ce que l'on récuse", August 26, 2016

7] The Local, 'Burqini bans will only divide France more', August 16, 2016

8] Catherine Borrel et Bertrand Lhommeau, cellule Statistiques et Études sur l’immigration, Insee, 2008

9] Geert De Clercq, France defends burkini ban on tense post-attack beaches, Reuters, August 16, 2016

10] Alex Shams, France’s burkini ban is a dangerous, Islamophobic assault on feminist values, Mondoweiss, August 25, 2016

11] Rebecca Savransky, Counterterrorism expert: Burkini bans could push people to ISIS, The Hill, August 28, 2016

12] George Jacob Holyoake, A Statement of Secular Principles, The Reasoner, July 1871

13] Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, "Dear white people of France: being forced to undress wasn't exactly the liberation I was longing for", The Independent, August 25, 2016

14] International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Iran's Conservatives Lash Out at New Female Fashion Trends, July 21, 2016

15] Cannes 'burkini' ban: What do Muslim women think?, BBC News, 13 August, 2016

16] Arundhati Roy, Capitalism: A Ghost Story, Verso, 2014

17] César Palacios-González, John Harris, Giuseppe Testa , Multiplex parenting: IVG and the generations to come, Journal of Medical Ethics doi:10.1136/medethics-2013-101810

Commenting on this Page will be automatically closed on October 31, 2016.


Many good contributions on the matter behind the walled garden

The burkini ban is understandable if we conceive and treat religions in the same way we treat ideologies.

We all agree that there are certain ideologies that are dangerous and lead to violence, intolerance and human rights violations. Probably the most common example is nazism. The swastika is a symbol of nazism, and it's reasonable to be offended if we see someone in the street with a nazi badge. In some countries it is illegal to wear nazi insignias or to perform the nazi salute because it is considered advocacy of crime.

We know Islam is a misogynistic and homophobic ideology. It's not a matter of opinion or interpretation: Muslims, for example, believe that homosexuals deserve to spend eternity in agony in the fire of hell. It's not an hyperbole, it's a dispassionate description. That's what they believe. We also know Muslims consider blasphemy a crime, which is in conflict with the right of free speech. We know that those ideas and many others that are part of the Islamic doctrine lead to intolerance and violence. And in fact we can see that intolerance and violence in the Muslim world.

So, if you see someone wearing a burkini and you feel something similar to when you see someone wearing a nazi badge it's completely understandable. It's a symbol of an ideology that is incompatible with the occidental culture and is in conflict with basic human rights.

Having said that, I don't think burkinis should be forbidden. Neither the nazi salute or the nazi badges. And they shouldn't be forbidden for the same reason: offending people's sensibility is not a crime. And wearing specific clothes or symbols doesn't seem to be enough to be considered advocacy of crime. Maybe you just like the design or the colors. Maybe you just want to see people's reactions. Or maybe you're just going to a costume party. Does it make you a "criminal"? I don't think so.

> it's reasonable to be offended if we see someone in the street with a nazi badge

Well punks used to wear it to deliberately shock, without any concern with the ideology, and of course, it's a symbol of peace among Buddhists and Hindus.

Getting this snapshot in 2003 was quite a joy

So symbolism very much depends on the intent behind it. For most people who wear the burkini, it's a matter of they want to be modest (some, because it is sun smart). Now I don't particularly care for the aesthetics of modesty, but for others it's very important to them, and it's hardly a Muslim-only matter (as the producer says, 40% of sales are to non-Muslims). Heck, my partner who is a card-carrying atheist, says that she would prefer a burkini over a bikini.

> It's not a matter of opinion or interpretation: Muslims, for example, believe that homosexuals deserve to spend eternity in agony in the fire of hell.

Well it is actually because Islam is an extremely diverse religion which is an innate part of its structure - even more so that Christianity in that regard. Each local community is responsible for its own implementation and interpretation with highly diverse schools of thought.

So you do end up with a very large conservative bloc which a fundamentalists and homophobic in the way you describe (especially in countries where Islamic law is the rule) , and then you also end up with openly gay imams.

Of course, Indonesia, home of the world's largest single population of Muslims, has no laws forbidding homosexuality since its foundation, although there are some fundamentalists trying to change that.

> It's a symbol of an ideology that is incompatible with the occidental culture and is in conflict with basic human rights.

Only if a person is offended by the existence of Muslims or has a limited understanding of Islam.