I’ve got to hand it to Islam, it regularly forces me to confront questions I could otherwise have spent my entire life happily not giving a moment’s thought. For instance: is it ethical for the French authorities to criminalise the natural human instinct to rush to the beach cloaked from head to toe in a suffocating black body-stocking in 90 degree weather?
It’d be tempting to say ‘no’ and have done with it. I view every new prohibition as an incremental reduction in the overall freedom and liberalism of the country that enforces it. I have a general knee-jerk reaction to the introduction of bans, which is to denounce the erosion of liberty and to moan a lot.
However, in the case of the burkini – the Islamic beachwear recently banned and then unbanned by a number of French towns – I have genuinely mixed feelings which I’m going to thrash out here if only to collect my somewhat contradictory thoughts on the topic.
238 people have been killed in Islamic terror attacks in France since the beginning of last year alone. In July of this year a jihadist driving a 19 tonne cargo truck ploughed through a Bastille Day celebration in Nice, killing 86 men, women and children and injuring another 307. Less than a fortnight later, representatives of the Islamic State stormed a Catholic church in Normandy and beheaded an 85 year old priest. Last year cartoonists and concert goers were torn down in a hail of bullets turning France into a country where orgies of Islamically motivated carnage have found something of a European home.
Would a burkini ban have prevented a single one of these deaths? Of course not. Nor will it have the slightest impact on the jihadist insurgency currently rampaging across the globe. But here’s the thing; I would suggest that a ban against a garment like the burkini must be viewed in the context of these atrocities. For a country like France whose liberalism and general tolerance of the religious and cultural demands of its citizens has been repaid with violence and barbarism by a minority of the Muslim community, I can understand why that tolerance might begin to dissipate. I can understand why the French authorities might want to try to reassert their own cultural identity in any way they can. I’m not convinced that outlawing an unorthodox item of swimwear is an effective way to go about it, but then perhaps this is a small step towards France beginning to issue some cultural demands of its own.
Of course France has made some moves towards, shall we say, ‘cultural assertiveness’ in the past. The Burka has been banned in France since 2010. There are a myriad of reasons why this garment is controversial and although not all of them translate to the burkini, some of them very obviously do. It’s true that the burkini does not cover the face the way the niqab does, and it’s also true that it would be extremely difficult to conceal an AK-47 assault rifle or a waistcoat decorated with C-4 explosives beneath the skin-tight fabric of the burkini. But although the security risks associated with the full chador and niqab are probably not reasons to object to the burkini, the symbolic aspects of religious supremacism and misogyny are.
The burka, and to a slightly lesser extent the hijab, represent the obligation of Muslim women to dress ‘modestly’ lest they invoke the wrath of their god and provoke the irrepressible sexual urges their menfolk.
Hijabs and burkas are imposed on women in states that operate according to the sharia. In countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Malaysia and the Sudan “Islamic Morality Police” enforce the religious requirement for women to cover. Failure to comply can result in punishments such as fines, floggings and imprisonment. In certain cases the Afghan Taliban felt no compunction in executing women who violated their modesty rules. If that doesn’t make you feel nauseous enough, then consider the fact that 15 Saudi schoolgirls died in 2002 when they were forcibly prevented by religious police from fleeing a burning building because they were not wearing Islamic robes or hijabs.
Even in the West, women and girls are intimidated and threatened into covering themselves by family members and members of the wider community. A common sentiment is that men are predators in waiting and that women are inviting sexual assault with the slightest flash of uncovered skin.
This grotesque misogyny and excuse-making for rape is what the burka represents – and the burkini legitimises it. Yet the bulk of the vocal outrage and condemnation seems to have been reserved for an admittedly uncomfortable series of photos of police in Nice enforcing the burkini ban.
Much was made of the fact that the police were armed:
“How would you feel if a nun at gunpoint was told to take off her habit?” asked James O’Brien of LBC Radio.
“Moment ARMED police confront burkini-wearing woman on French beach” screamed the headline in the Daily Express.
The fact that French police are armed at all times seemed to be neither here-nor-there. The compulsion for hysterical overreaction was too strong. The French police and the Gendarmes carry side-arms as a matter of course. If a French squad car pulled up outside a McDonalds drive-thru for lunch, I’m sure nobody would be tempted to describe the situation as one in which “armed police swoop on burger restaurant” or “Cop orders Royale with Cheese AT GUNPOINT!”
Yet the police calmly enforcing a well-publicised law was widely described as though a SWAT team had burst from bunkers under the sand and demanded that an innocent woman perform a striptease as they leered and pointed submachine guns at her head.
Regardless, many thought this was an unconscionable breach of personal liberty and a solidarity protest was arranged in the form of a Wear What You Want Beach Party outside the French embassy in London.
Presumably the protestors that attended this event decided to bypass the Iranian, Saudi and Afghan embassies to instead concentrate on berating the policies of a pluralistic, secular democracy still reeling from the two deadliest terror attacks in its history. The tricolore profile overlays, the solidarity memes and the #PrayforFrance hashtags had barely been put back in the cupboard before France was being tactlessly described as the laughing stock of the world.
As vulgar and oppressive as the very concept of Islamic modesty is, there are undoubtedly women that choose to cover up in this way for comfort and as an expression of their religious values. Disagree as I might with those values, I’m still not entirely comfortable with a restriction of their rights – because their rights are not dependent upon whether I or anyone else agrees with their expression of them. However, I would assume that a woman who feels somehow obligated, of her own volition rather than say her husbands, to wear a burkini to the beach could easily find any number of other garments that would retain her modesty without legitimising a misogynistic oppressive cloak. But perhaps this is an outrageously illiberal suggestion even in the context of a European country that has suffered more than any other at the hands of this retrograde theology.
It could well be the case that the problem posed by Islam and its more conservative fans might very well prove to be ultimately unsolvable. Is it reasonable to expect some minor and possibly temporary infringements on freedom and liberty in order to make baby steps towards confronting its most existential threat? I genuinely don’t know the answer to that. I’d like to say that I’m completely opposed to the burkini ban, but I’m not sure I can bring myself to do so, much the same way that I would be hesitant to oppose a restriction on people turning up to the seaside in the bed sheets and pointy hats of the Ku Klux Klan.
Maybe I’m over complicating matters here. In insisting this is some kind of moral conundrum – an Islamic variation on the Trolley Problem – I’m possibly ignoring the simple fact people should have a right to wear whatever the hell they want.
Any easy answers to this ostensibly simple question currently evade me. And even if I can’t fully condone the ban, I can at least admit that I understand the reasons behind it and I don’t think they’re ‘silly’ as some other commentators have suggested. But I would rather the focus at this time was on concrete and effective policies to combat the problems of Islam in Europe and the world at large rather than the comparative non-issue of inauspicious swimsuits. Disconcertingly though, the outrage that has accompanied this most minor of infringements by a country that is struggling to come to terms with the effects of Islam upon its society does not bode well for the public acceptance of additional and possibly tougher measures in future.