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Alhamdullilah for the Conseil d’État. It is not par hasard that the judges of France’s supreme administrative law court are nicknamed les sages (the wise men)—though the Conseil’s ruling yesterday striking down the anti-burkini municipal ordinance in seaside Villeneuve-Loubet—which will serve as jurisprudence for abrogating like ordinances in other municipalities—was an obvious no-brainer. It would have been truly stunning had the Conseil ruled otherwise, as, in point of fact, there is no serious argument for legally banning the burkini. None whatever. If a person—woman or man—on a beach in a free society wishes to wear a garment that covers the entire body minus face and maybe feet—or, alternatively, an itsy-bitsy cache-sexe concealing only that most intimate part, or anything in between—s/he has the right to do so. Point barre.
The psychodrama France has descended into over this fabricated issue has to be the most preposterous and irrational in the 25-odd years I have lived in this country—not to mention one of the more pernicious, in view of the overt Muslimophobia that has been unleashed by politicians and media alike. The spectacle of the Muslim women in Nice and Cannes—who were minding their own business and troubling no public order—being harassed and humiliated by the police was a disgrace, accomplishing nothing but the degradation of France’s image abroad and making the country look ridiculous in the process—and, one may also add, intolerant, racist, and sexist (yes, sexist France, as the latest hysteria over French Muslims concerns, as usual, only woman, with men, including the most bearded Salafist, naturally being free to wear any damned outfit they please in public space). And all over a piece of clothing that practically no one in France had heard of—and even fewer had actually seen—before this month of August 2016.
Numerous commentaries over the past two weeks on the absurd burkini affair have gotten it exactly right, e.g. the New York Times’s August 19th editorial—penned by sharp, Paris-based editorial writer Mira Kamdar—”France’s burkini bigotry.” Other spot on critiques of the anti-burkini crusade include public law professor Thomas Hochmann’s Le Monde op-ed (August 19th), “L’interdiction du ‘burkini’ est une faute juridique et politique;” Edwy Plenel in Mediapart (August 14th), “‘Un vêtement comme les autres’…;” political scientist Jean-François Bayart, also in Mediapart (August 18th), “La laïcité, nouvelle religion nationale;” and law professor Stéphanie Hennette-Vauchez, writing in Libération’s “Do you law?” blog (August 23rd), “Le burkini de l’état d’urgence.”
One may also profitably reread the invariably excellent Patrick Weil’s 2013 interview in L’Opinion, “‘Qu’on laisse en paix les femmes voilées’.”
French public opinion is, as one may expect, not favorable toward the burkini, with 64%, according to an IFOP-Le Figaro poll released on Thursday, opposed to it being worn on the beach. Majorities can be wrong, of course. Even if 94% were opposed, that wouldn’t suddenly make the masses right. Politicians, as one may also expect, have been indulging and stoking the fears of the public—naturally traumatized over the recent terrorist atrocities—with, not surprisingly, the unspeakable Nicolas Sarkozy, now on the campaign trail, leading the demagogic charge, demanding, entre autres, a legislative ban of the burkini—though Sarko knows full well, in principle at least, that any such law is impossible, that it would be nullified illico by the sages of the Conseil Constitutionnel.
Not to be out-Sarkozy-d, the insufferable Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls has likewise been gesticulating over the burkini, labeling it “a political project, a counter-society, based in particular on the subjugation of women” and, on his Facebook page yesterday, the expression of “a deadly, backward-looking Islamism” (un islamisme mortifère, rétrograde). Ouf! Even academic savants have been echoing these themes, e.g. emerita philosophy professor Catherine Kintzler, who, in an interview in Le Figaro (August 26th), called the burkini a symbol of “communautarisme” (mais bien évidemment; what else could it possibly be for any self-respecting defender of le modèle républicain français?) and “an ultra-reactionary, totalitarian political Islam,” that represents “an effort to stigmatize all Muslim women who refuse to wear it, who refuse to veil themselves, who refuse the uniformization of their lives.” No less.
And then there’s the well-known social scientist Philippe d’Iribarne, who wrote in Le Monde (August 19th) that the burkini is “unacceptable,” as, entre autres, it violates an apparent French “social norm that asks for a certain discretion in the public expression of that that distinguishes one’s social status or political or religious convictions.” Women who wear the burkini are imposing an alternative social norm, indeed a “projet de société,” so d’Iribarne has it: A “societal project,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. Monsieur d’Iribarne suggests that women who wear the burkini and other Islamic articles of clothing do not really do so of their own free will, that they may “simply be seeking not to be bothered in the neighborhoods where they live, or wish to please their entourage, or are constrained to do so by their fathers or husbands, or fear burning in hell, or are perhaps militants of an islam de combat.”
This is one of the stupidest pieces I’ve read by an otherwise smart person in I don’t know how long. Fortunately Le Monde published an op-ed (August 24th), by Patrice Obert—president of the center-left association Le Courant des Poissons Roses—that critiqued d’Iribarne, explaining why it is “unacceptable not to ‘accept’ the burkini.”
Islamism, projet de société, counter-society, Islamic “cultural imperialism,” women being ordered by men, subjugation of women, fundamentalism, burkini-wearing women willfully seeking to provoke and shock…
Let me make an assertion: the legions of pundits, politicians, and other commentators and academic savants who have made these allegations and/or imputed hidden motives to the Muslims in question have not a shred of evidence to support their contentions. They have not a shred of evidence to refute the manifest fact that 99+% of the women who wear the burkini do so on their own volition—that no one has forced them into it—and that their motives have nothing to do with politics or trying to make a statement. The burkini-detractors could not credibly support their assertions if their lives depended on it.
And the threat to public order that the burkini supposedly constitutes, which was one of the stated reasons for the municipal ordinances? Read this interview with Radio France Internationale’s David Thomson, who has written a book on French jihadists, and tell me if the threat comes from the burkini-wearers or, rather, the actions of the burkini-banners themselves.
As for those who consider the burkini to be Islamist or reflecting of a rigorist interpretation of Islam, they have no idea what they’re talking about, as Salafi women would never go a mixed beach or don such a piece of clothing that reveals the shape of their body (as the burkini does).
But what if, for the sake of argument, some of the above allegations were at least partly true? As social scientist and friend Nadia Marzouki wrote on social media the other day
What if there *is* something political in wearing a burkini, in criticizing the French religion of laïcité, in not eating the French republican “soupe au cochon”, in performing alternative ways of life etc.? What’s wrong with being political?
Yes, if some Muslim women do, in fact, seek to make a statement in wearing a burkini, if they are indeed signaling that their religious faith is primordial in their lives, what of it?
And what about the burkini itself? Even pundits critical of the anti-burkini campaign have felt the need to assure readers that they do not approve of the offending swimsuit. Libération’s Laurent Joffrin thus editorialized (August 17th) that
one would have to have a particularly twisted mind to maintain that the wearing of a piece of clothing that covers all parts of the female body, including swimsuits, is merely a harmless fashion, or a vector of the emancipation of women. In the great majority of cases, it is a religiously ostentatious signifier reflecting a rigorous interpretation of sacred texts that relegates women to a secondary role.
I beg to differ, though this is admittedly a complex question. The Nation’s Katha Pollitt, in an aptly titled column (August 25th), “France has a strange concept of feminism—and secularism,” opposed the burkini bans but did specify that
I actually agree with the critique of veiling. Whatever else it may be, it’s inextricably bound up, like the Orthodox Jewish dress code, with notions of female-only “modesty”—i.e., the acceptance of the female body as the site of sexuality, which must be concealed as a danger and provocation to men. If covering is just about faith, why don’t men do it too?
Yes, of course. These are old questions. We know it. Veiling, objectively speaking, does reflect patriarchy. What else is new? But at the risk of being provocative, I will argue that the creation of the burkini is, in fact, an advance for pious Muslim women, that it represents progress—and particularly for women in the Arab world itself and other Muslim majority countries. For these women, the choice is not between the burkini and a more conventional swimsuit, but rather between the burkini and either going to the beach—and, at most, wading into the water—fully clothed (hijab and all) or not going at all—and not because they are forbidden by men but simply because they won’t go, period. In a country like Algeria, there are a number of “family” beaches where women sunbathe in one or two piece swimsuits, but in long stretches of coastline one sees only young men. Women simply won’t go to these beaches. Gender relations in that society and cultural attitudes toward the body are what they are. If the burkini succeeds in bringing more women to these beaches and learning how to swim while they’re at it, well, tant mieux, n’est-ce pas?
As Saul Alinsky used to say, in order to change the world we first need to see the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. If patriarchy and conservative notions of gender among Muslims are going to change, it’s going to be brought about by Muslims themselves—gradually, one step at a time—and not by laïcard Frenchmen ideologically browbeating them.
And then there’s the inventor of the burkini herself, Aheda Zanetti, who explained in a Guardian op-ed (August 24th), “I created the burkini to give women freedom, not to take it away.” The piece—qu’on peut lire en français—carries this lede: “The burkini does not symbolise Islam, it symbolises leisure and happiness and fitness and health. So who is better, the Taliban or French politicians?”
As for the burkini not symbolizing Islam, good point. One may bet that it will find a growing market among women of all faiths—or of no faith at all—and particularly in a country like India, where women traditionally do not wear swimsuits on the beach (those who actually go to one). À propos, the NYT has an op-ed (August 26th) by writer Jennifer Weiner on “The women who won’t wear swimsuits,” in which the burkini is not mentioned once. There are a lot of women out there—including a member of the older generation in my own family—who have never felt comfortable in a bathing suit. Just as there are certainly many men in France—perhaps myself included—who don’t like the rule in public swimming pools in France that men have to wear swim briefs, a.k.a. moule-bites. They feel self-conscious wearing the stupid thing. The burkini is probably not a solution for them but can be for women.
Back to the case of France, today’s Washington Post has an article on “France’s burkini debate: About a bathing suit and a country’s peculiar secularism,” in which the well-known specialist of French laïcité, Joan Wallach Scott, is quoted
For Scott, the greatest irony in the entire affair is that the burkini in fact embodies the achievement of a secular, integrated society.
The women who wear burkinis, she said, cannot be called oppressed. They are not the women subservient to a conservative Islam; they are the women who sit on beaches unsupervised by men, enjoying their leisure time in mixed social company.
But because of the same type of secularism ostensibly designed to foster equality among citizens, those same women could in fact be driven further from the social mainstream.
“It just convinces Muslims who are already feeling discrimination and alienation that indeed they’re right,” Scott said. “And that the French government is interested in getting rid of them, not in integrating them.”
UPDATE: Jean Baubérot—the well-known sociologist and specialist of religion in France—was interviewed in Libération (August 17th) on the burkini affair. This passage is particularly interesting:
Cette polémique a été précédée d’une autre, en mars, autour de la «mode pudique», qui ne pose pas de problème dans d’autres pays occidentaux, par exemple en Angleterre. Pourquoi tant de stress ?
Les pays anglo-saxons ont une culture de la diversité, cultuelle et culturelle, plus forte. C’est Voltaire qui a écrit: «Un Anglais, comme homme libre, va au ciel par le chemin qui lui plaît.» En France, une mentalité «catholique et français toujours» perdure, une mentalité de l’unité. On parle encore de «la France une et indivisible» alors que, depuis la Constitution de 1946, «une» a été enlevé au profit de «indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale», et ça n’est pas pour rien! Or, culturellement, on a l’impression que ça n’a jamais été intégré, et «démocratique et sociale», on l’entend peu. C’est une conception de l’unité assez uniforme qui prédomine, peu inclusive de la diversité. Résultat, on ne sait plus séparer ce qui peut être dangereux de ce qui peut choquer mais peut être accepté par la démocratie. On ne met pas la frontière au bon endroit.
2nd UPDATE: Moroccan sociologist Abdessamad Dialmy—who specializes in sexuality, gender, and religion—has two pieces in Al Huffington Post that are worth reading: “Le burkini, un compromis anti-islamiste” (August 21st) and “Le burkini, entre féminisme blanc et féminisme islamique” (August 23rd). N.B. Dialmy is equally opposed to the burkini and attempts to ban it.
3rd UPDATE: The Forward’s The Sisterhood blog has a post (August 24th) asserting: “Seriously, what Orthodox [Jewish] women wear to the beach is no different from a burkini.”
4th UPDATE: Le Canard Enchaîné has a short piece in the latest issue explaining—in its trademark ironic style—why the burkini would not pass muster with those who adhere to a rigorist interpretation of Islam.
5th UPDATE: Robin Wright has a piece in The New Yorker (August 26th), “A court overturns a burkini ban, but not its mindset.” Money quote
The irony of the swimsuit crisis is that the laws—and their enforcement—shamed the Muslim women who want to participate in French society. “Tying the burkini to extremism is absurd. Actual Salafis are against the burkini because they don’t think women should be swimming in public in the first place,” Shadi Hamid, the author of “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam is Reshaping the World,” told me on Friday.
Also see the article by Alissa J. Rubin in the NYT (August 27th), “From bikinis to burkinis, regulating what women wear,” in which interesting people are quoted.
6th UPDATE: Philippe Marlière, who teaches political science at University College London, has a post on his Mediapart blog (August 26th), “La gauche de l’entre-soi et le burkini.” The lede: “Cet article revient sur les récentes controverses sur le port du burkini en France, montre la ligne de fracture qu’elles ont créée au sein de la gauche française, et réfute les arguments qui sont déployés pour justifier des attaques racistes et sexistes contre les femmes musulmanes.”
7th UPDATE: Here’s the official English translation of the Conseil d’État’s ruling on the burkini affair.
8th UPDATE: Benjamin Haddad, a youthful French research fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, has an essay (August 30th) in The American Interest entitled “Behind the burkini.” The lede: “The overturned ban is not a religious issue, but the symbol of a broader political struggle.” Now Haddad is a pretty bright guy but is à côté de la plaque—i.e. off-the-wall—on a number points in his piece. E.g. he opines that
The fact is that many in France consider the aggressive display of this brand of Islamic fundamentalism in a public space to be a provocation, an intentional rejection of the French Republic’s long tradition of secularism, and an attempt at self-exclusion from the rest of the population.
As I have written above, the burkini has nothing whatever to do with “Islamic fundamentalism.” This is a phantasm. And no one who thinks this has a shred of evidence to defend the contention that even one single woman—une seule—who wears the burkini does so to provoke, to signal a rejection of secularism, or is attempting to exclude herself from the rest of the population. This is a figment of the French imagination. (But then, even if a burkini-wearing woman did have these things in mind, eh alors? La belle affaire! Dans un pays libre comme la France, c’est son droit. Qu’est-ce que ça peut vous faire?).
And while the vast majority of French Muslims keep their faith privately and are peaceful citizens, this model of integration makes the country an inviting target for those who don’t.
Huh? What is this supposed to mean? How does one “model of integration” make a country a target for—what precisely?—more than another “model”?
To be clear, wearing a burkini is manifestly not considered a mandatory religious requirement by France’s overwhelmingly moderate Muslim population, who don’t wear it.
But no one has even hinted that the burkini is religiously required. Pour mémoire, the burkini is trademarked product of an Australian fashion designer named Aheda Zanetti (see above), who created the garment for pious Muslim women—but also for any non-Muslim woman—who wishes to go to the beach but, for her own reasons, will not wear a conventional swimsuit. The burkini is, above all, a business proposition that aims to satisfy a heretofore underserved market.
À propos, how much would one like to bet that the burkini® under another name sells like hotcakes in Israel among Jewish women?
That the burkini may be worn free of pressure does not change the underlying message.
But what underlying message?! And sent by whom precisely? (and please give names). The notion that there is a message in the burkini is a collective French phantasm.
Please, there is no message here. I promise you.
Moreover, the burkini, which was seemingly absent from beaches before this year, is seen as a mere episode in a broader pattern of every-day incidents in which republican principles are challenged by a radical minority constantly testing and pushing the boundaries of what is or is not acceptable. It is not a religious issue, but the symbol of a broader political struggle.
What “radical minority”? Who are you talking about? Please name names. And while you’re at it, please provide references of what this “radical minority” has written about the burkini.
The censure (and worse) of moderate Muslims who don’t observe Ramadan, the requests of community leaders for gender-segregated hours in public swimming pools, the pressure on women not to accept the care of male physicians even in cases of emergency, the refusal of children to listen in biology class or to learn about the Holocaust: These incidents don’t make international headlines but are becoming increasingly ubiquitous.
Such incidents have indeed happened but how do you know that they “are becoming increasingly ubiquitous”? In point of fact, you don’t know at all. There have been numerous anecdotes over the years of disturbing and unacceptable things happening—as there inevitably will be in a society of 65 million inhabitants—but the extent of this has not been established. Seriously, we really don’t know.
In June, a young Muslim waitress was attacked in the name of Islam in downtown Nice for serving alcohol during Ramadan.
A fait divers. It was outrageous and with the perpetrators meriting prosecution, but it was still just one incident.
But not reacting to the burkini also has its consequences and runs the risk of normalizing such practices.
But so what if the burkini is “normalized”?? In point of fact, it should be normalized. If the burkini succeeds in bringing more Muslim and other women to the beach, that’s a good thing, is it not? À propos, see the quotes above of Joan Wallach Scott and Shadi Hamid.
In the coming years, Europeans will continue to grapple with the tension between their liberal principles and the necessity of rolling back the hold of a radical minority.
But what “radical minority”?? Please give names of such radicals in France.
These attempts, however clumsy, deserve a more understanding reception than scorn and conceit.
Oy vey, the attempts by demagogic French politicians to “roll back” the hold of this imagined “radical minority” deserve not only scorn and conceit but disdain as well.
Le 26 août, une si belle date pour les libertés. #1789 #2016
— Maitre Eolas ??
(@Maitre_Eolas) August 26, 2016