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French Secularism and the Burkini Ban


France made headlines this past week when a small town decided to ban body-covering swimwear known as “burkinis” from its beaches under the guise of security concerns.

The measure was already struck down by France’s highest administrative court, but it highlights an ongoing debate in the country, and indeed in the rest of the Western world. To what extent is a government permitted to regulate what its citizens wear? Does that authority also extend to clothing that is overtly religious in nature?

Such a law would be virtually unconscionable in the US as we have guaranteed rights of both free expression and religious practices. Like any rights, these have limits, but our government has no basis upon which to ban clothing of a religious character.

France’s approach is different. A staunchly secularist state, France has been more proactive in enforcing religious neutrality in public life. Overt displays of religion are generally frowned upon. France has a similar concept to the United States’ separation of church and state, but the French form is an almost complete excision of religious content from public discourse. As The Guardian notes:

The danger that Muslims pose to the French way of life is clearly of great concern to the French media and politicians, many of whom have expressed concerns about the incompatibility of Islam with core French values, most specifically, that of [laïcité]( or secularism. Sweeping generalisations are made, with no official statistics or evidence to back them up. But even if anyone tried to look for data, the French interpretation of laïcité would prevent them from finding it. This is because the French system interprets secularism not only as the separation of religion from the state, but also as an artificial way of claiming equality for all citizens. In an effort to maintain this idea of equality, it’s technically illegal to [collect data about ethnicity or religion]( as we do here in the UK. To do so in France would be seen as a form of discrimination in itself.

Data on ethnicity and religion are collected in the US, as well. To make no effort to monitor such data deprives the government of critical tools for addressing social and economic injustice. The idealism behind this mindset is, I think, admirable, but denying reality means that minority communities get left behind, even oppressed. The old saw goes that freedom of religion is not freedom from religion. We must not confuse the two.

Putting aside the idea that burkinis have anything to do with terrorism–an absurd notion on its face–I want to examine the double standards displayed in a controversy like this, and also bring some nuance to the table.

Western countries like France are, without a doubt, more progressive in terms of how women are treated. This is often used by those who oppose Muslims and Islam as evidence of our superiority. Richard Dawkins famously attacked Rebecca Watson for complaining about an encounter that offered an example of sexism in our culture–his view was that Western women should be grateful they don’t live in more repressive Muslim countries. I will not dispute that Muslim-majority countries, by and large, mistreat their women, and that Western countries have a better record in that regard.

But that’s no reason to be snide or complacent, nor to feel especially superior. Feminism still has a long way to go in Western culture, given sexual assault rates, domestic violence issues, the gender pay gap, and the endless double standards to which women are held. We don’t get a free pass on improvement just because someone else is worse.

Looking at swimwear in particular, such double standards come through quite clearly. Western women are encouraged to show off their bodies, especially for the pleasure of men, but at the same time are shamed for being “slutty.” A woman’s sexuality matters only as it relates to how men want to make use of it. The very term “beach body” exists due to a culture that imposes strict standards for beauty that women must abide by, lest they be deemed ugly, unfuckable, and worthless. The worst insult many men can conceive of to use against a woman is to tell her they wouldn’t have sex with her.

These are not the signs of an egalitarian, feminist culture.

But perhaps one is also concerned for the autonomy and agency of Muslim women. A woman who is forced to hide her body because the privilege of seeing it is reserved for a specific man is also concerning. It clearly runs counter to any feminist objective. I have seen some argue that women covering themselves with the hijab, burqa, niqab, and other clothes designed for “modesty” is a form of female empowerment: it gives a woman control over who gets to see her body and under what circumstances. An interesting idea, but one that is hardly representative of why Muslim women cover themselves.

It is admittedly a very complex issue. The dismantling of sexism and sexist practices are worthy goals that should be pursued. But forcing people to dress or not dress in certain ways under force of law can only provoke reactionary responses. It’s counterproductive. Worse than that, it emboldens people who want to push such ordinances for bigoted reasons. I tend not to believe that Westerners who agitate against how Muslim women are dressed really care all that much about women’s rights. It’s usually white men pursuing that angle, and they’re often New Atheists who are just looking for acceptable outlets for their bigoted views.

An aspect that’s even harder to contend with is the ultimate direction of a nation’s culture. When Muslims become a larger and larger segment of the population, and those Muslims are relatively conservative, over time they will shift the values and attitudes of the culture. Those who want to protect the majority culture by assimilating such minorities often end up in conflict with them. The question becomes: who’s right? And who gets to determine the future of that culture?

Western culture is itself battling internally to find an answer. We spent many years convinced that ours is the greatest culture the world has ever conceived–that the grand traditions of European culture stretching back to the Romans and the Greeks are something to be proud of and to preserve well into the future. More contemporary thinking, however, presents a much more ambiguous and less certain construction of reality. Cultures are not better or worse than each other, merely different. And if no culture is qualitatively superior than another culture, who deserves the upper hand? Must it inevitably become a numbers game, or even a violent struggle?

At this point, the identification, delineation, codification, and protection of basic human rights provide the best answer. Disparate cultures will never agree on everything and it’s unreasonable to expect them to. But there are basic tenets of human existence that, regardless of culture, should be preserved. The closest we have to a global consensus is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s also worth noting that there is not a single country on Earth which has continuously upheld all of its provisions in both letter and spirit since its adoption. (I’m more than happy to entertain corrections on this point! If such a unicorn of a country exists, I want to know.)

This brings me back to a fundamental question that’s at the center of these debates. In France, efforts to regulate public displays of Islam center on exactly what it means to be French. Are conservatively-dressed Muslims truly French? There are clearly those who don’t believe so. This is not a question in any way limited to France, either. In the US, Muslims are often treated with suspicion, not regarded as “real Americans.” This obsession with some kind of cultural or national purity is fundamentally flawed. When the state attempts to codify this purity into law, it transgresses the rights of the minorities it is attempting to regulate. Assimilation and cultural reconciliation can’t be forced through legal means.

Again, it’s worth keeping in mind that French courts rejected the burkini ban–as they should have. Regardless of the motives of French secularism, it’s a cynical, oppressive measure that serves no productive purpose for either Muslim women in France nor the French people as a whole. Unfortunately, I doubt this will be the last such measure, in France or elsewhere in the West.

Photo by brunosan