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Is the Burkini Really Just ‘A Choice of Clothes’?

Imagine the scenario, you’re shopping in your local supermarket and in walks a person dressed head to toe in a Klu Klux Klan or Nazi uniform. You ask them if they’re going to a fancy dress party and they say no. They are clearly a person who holds beliefs that are racist and hateful. You are shocked, and probably offended. Do you say something or pretend not to notice? Judging by the western liberal voices in the media on the burkini in France this week, we should probably do the latter.  And yet, people would feel offended by such attire as a symbol of racial hatred and intolerance. In fact, the Nazi swastika has been banned in Germany. The point being that clothes are not only  symbols of aesthetic or practical ‘choice’ but of ‘belief’ and ideology too.

On the other hand, let’s suppose a white, non-Muslim woman goes into a predominantly Muslim area in a European city, one of the ‘no-go’ areas, wearing a mini-skirt or openly drinking alcohol. Do you think it would be tolerated and acceptable? Of course it wouldn’t and isn’t. As explained in France is Right to Ban the Burkini, this everyday fear and reality is not some Right-wing myth but has actually resulted in women being attacked:

This important point is blithely ignored by naive liberal writers, particularly those in Britain, who have little understanding of the extent of extremism in France, where 100 of the country’s 2,500 mosques are controlled by Salafists, the most puritanical Islamic ideology. The Salafists want all women covered, at all times, and the burkini is part of their strategy. It is a symbol of Islamic purity with a clear message: good Muslims wear the burkini, bad ones wear the bikini. Toleration of the burkini will only embolden France’s ‘police of mores’ in their campaign of coercion, a point emphasised by Nicolas Sarkozy in an interview to be published in Friday’s Le Figaro magazine. ‘Wearing a burkini is a political act, it’s militant, a provocation,’ said Sarkozy, styling himself as the uncompromising centre-right candidate ahead of next year’s Presidential elections. ‘If we do not put an end to this, there is a risk that in 10 years, young Muslim girls who do not want to wear the veil or burkini will be stigmatised and peer-pressured.

Conservative Muslims believe that ‘good women’ should be covered head to toe, that women are inferior to men and that their rights depend on their male guardians. Women who ‘choose’ or who are ‘pressured’ to wear burkas or even hijabs, are often subjected to such misogynist and sexist social conditioning from the day they are born.  Yet even so-called ‘moderate’ Islam (as well as other patriarchal religions) appears to condone and encourage some worrying beliefs. For example, according to one recent poll, half of all Muslims in the UK think that homosexuality should be outlawed (with 23% wanting Sharia Law). The death penalty for homosexuality applies in most Muslim-majority countries, so anyone arguing that this thinking bears no connection to Islam must be either a) incredibly naive or b) deluded.

These same naive (or regressive) liberals together with religious patriarchs were also celebrating the forced covering up of world-class female athletes at the Rio Olympics:

Veiled athletes were hailed as examples of multiculturalism, inclusiveness and female empowerment by dullards who looked past the reality of how women are treated in Muslim majority countries.

Tennis great Martina Navratilova was among those operating under the delusion that women competing in burkinis were free to choose, just like their Western sisters.

“Olympians in Hijab and Bikini, — as long as we have a choice, it is up to us to decide what is right for each of us,” Navratilova tweeted.

The only problem is that women in Islamic countries don’t have a choice and to pretend otherwise is a betrayal of the most disempowered women in the world; the very women that Western feminists should be fighting for instead of obsessing about trivial twaddle or, worse still, rationalising the treatment of women under Islam by indulging in cowardly moral relativism.

To be clear, I don’t support an outright ban (which would be difficult to police and further restrict the freedom of disempowered women). In any case, France’s highest court overturned the ban yesterday. However, one doesn’t have to support the French ban in order to support criticism of this form of clothing. As Muslim man, Maajid Nawaz wrote in Both Sides are Wrong in the Burkini Wars

It is possible to oppose the French ban on burkinis while also challenging the mindset of those who support burkas and burkinis…..

But the assumption that “modesty” equates to covering up is a subtle form of bigotry against the female form. It goes without saying that harassment on Western beaches, where the female form is more normalized, occurs less than in conservative societies, even though it is still present. But in too many instances across Muslim-majority contexts this “modesty theology” has led to slut-shaming of women who do not cover.

In the worst of cases, misogyny disguised as modesty has led to mass sexual harassment on the streets, most recently by gangs of Muslim migrants in Cologne. In Egypt, it has even given rise to a mass public rape phenomenon. As Muslim feminists note, violating Muslim cultural “honor codes” (irdh) and modesty theology (hayaa’) can lead to heinous legal and societal reprimand and the gross fetishization of a woman’s body.

John Stuart Mill, famously argued in ‘On Liberty’, that offence is not necessarily sufficient alone to ban something unless one can show it causes real harm or provokes hatred towards people. One could potentially argue that the ‘modesty doctrine’ ideology behind the burqa promotes misogyny and gender apartheid. As an ex-Muslim woman eloquently wrote in The Burkini-Bikini False Equivalence and Your Disproportionate Outrage :

I don’t know what people mean or understand by “coercion,” but positive adherence to modesty doctrine does not negate the presence of constraint.

Further to that, positive adherence to modesty doctrine in the presence of social sanction and encouragement is only to be expected.  Conforming to an extant social norm and feeling free and empowered to do so is not only entirely possible in the presence of systemic constraint, but encouraged and enabled by it. Especially if it is adherence within a fold that has no truck with outsiders (eg particularly insular communities).

Because while those who choose to conform are visible, those who are not free to dissent are not.

Looking at the woman who insists she wasn’t made to conform tells you nothing about the woman who didn’t want to conform, and hasn’t anything resembling the visibility to say so.

As a liberal, anti-racist feminist it is frustrating to hear the general debate on this issue yet again categorise those who criticise the burkini as Right-wing fascists or racists. Even French Prime Minister Manuel Valls defended the ban on burkinis in more than a dozen coastal towns on Thursday, saying France was locked in a “battle of cultures” and that the full-body swimsuit symbolised the enslavement of women.

Naive (or deluded) liberals really need to understand the ideology and reasoning behind such clothing to understand why many people in liberal,secular countries find them a provocation and offensive. It is the height of racist and patriarchal ignorance (and ignores the plight of millions of Muslim women currently being forced to wear such dress) to write such things off as simply a matter of ‘free choice’. Let’s not forget there are non-European (and Muslim-majority) countries that have banned the burqa and Germany is now considering following the same route as a ‘barrier to integration’.

If you really believe that it is acceptable for women and children to wear burqas out of social, religious or state-sanctioned pressure backed by sexist ideology then you really should also have no problem with people publicly wearing the swastika, the Klu Klux Klan outfit and so on in places where such views are uncommon.

The key distinction to be made here is one between a clothing choice made out of aesthetic or practical considerations and one made based on an ideology that is ‘offensive’ to liberal, secular, gender equality values. This is not about ‘covering-up’ vs ‘showing flesh’ this is about patriarchal religious ideology.