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.

 

 

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7 thoughts on “Is the Burkini Really Just ‘A Choice of Clothes’?

  1. It is not naive to realize that having police demand removal of a woman’s clothing in a public space is as reprehensible as police demanding the addition of women’s clothing in a public space.

    I can quite easily argue one week for the right of women to use naked selfies without being subjected to someone stealing them for the purposes of a pornographic website, and then argue for the right of women to wear a ‘burkini’ at a beach the next week.

    The point is that women and men should be free to wear what they wish. It is the foundation of human autonomy. I thank the French Council of State for being so reasoned and only wish that places such as Iran and Saudi Arabia had the benefit of such political governance as the separation of powers, an independent judiciary and the belief in universal human rights.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for a) confirming exactly the point I was making here by b) completely missing the point of what I wrote here. No disrespect intended but can I suggest you read it again and reflect a lttle more about what is meant by ‘freedom’ and ‘coercion’ in the context of patriarchal religious ideology.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Your own patronising response to my comment is a reflection on your own authoritarian views which demand that ALL women comply to your own standard of secularism.

        Secularism means freedom of and from religion as a citizen. Nobody is forcing you to wear a burkini, but for some women they like its protection. Why should that be a problem to you?

        Like

      2. Janet, it is you who assume SO much about the Muslim women who ‘choose’ to wear the burqa and burkini in the freedom of non-Muslim majority countries. It is you who chooses to ignore the plight of millions of Muslim women who don’t want to yet are forced to do so, out of religious,social and state-sanctioned pressure. How are you so sure that the majority of women you see wearing it do so out of free choice? In addition, even if it is a genuinely free choice, as my essay clearly states, that choice is still ased on a religious ideology about women and their status which secular and gender equal countries and people have every right to object to and criticise. As I said, your post just proved my point about the racist and patronising regressive liberal mindset on such issues. As the ex-Muslim woman, Biba, wrote in the piece I cited in my essay:

        “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.”

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Madden

    Really interesting piece. I had largely thought this whole debate was a waste of time, a ban pointless and achieve nothing but heighten the pitch of whining from the Islamists and their righteous enablers, another round of glorification of the Hijab and ‘Islamophobia’, and be more of a distraction to more important issues.

    But this opened up a slightly different perspective.

    It’s certainly true that women abused for not wearing the Hijab get forgotten in this country.

    There was evidence of this at the last Olympics, an athlete from Tunisia Habiba Ghribi who had spoken out for women’s rights and against Hijab in sports was largely ignored in the West in favour of all the Hijab athletes. She has got heavy criticism for years from Islamists for her clothes (http://www.france24.com/en/20120808-tunisia-runner-ghribi-women-rights-equality-compliment-constitution-ennahda-olympic-games & http://www.huffpostmaghreb.com/2016/08/19/voile-tunisie_n_11603718.html) and Islamists actually taunt her with memes of those same Hijab athletes people in the West drool over (https://scontent-lhr3-1.xx.fbcdn.net/v/t1.0-9/13880157_1658012784516422_948141804615674623_n.jpg?oh=b90f6791f543ac285fca20c9753133c8&oe=584D5FC8).

    Ultimately it’s empowerment and support of the genuinely true liberals of Muslim backgrounds who face some of the biggest difficulty that’s most important. Is there possibly a strong argument that those genuinely progressive women of Muslim background would be helped and receive less abuse and feel more comfortable if a ban on Islamist symbolism were in place? Would they be generally supportive of it? And would the Left be similarly against removal of KKK symbolism by the same freedom principle if it was seen in more proficient numbers?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for that post, it’s always refreshing to read voices who completely understand the issues at stake here without falling back onto the liberal screams of racism and the Religious Right’s cries of Religion and the true status of women. The irony and tragedy is hearing so-called liberal (and feminists)defending a religious ideology that absolutely discriminates against and oppresses females in the name of anti-racism and/or multi-culturalism. As you say such people display an unbelievable level of ‘racism of lower expectations’ which ignores the genuine plight of millions of women and girls who are forced to wear it against their will.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. exhibit a of the naive and deluded liberal

    this continual #NotAll misses the point, that the majority wear it because of an oppressive social culture. It’s OK to fight back against that. Unfortunately, outlawing people’s freely chosen cultures is a very sensitive and difficult topic. But to say that some people choose it and ignore that many don’t precisely, or rather choose it to avoid social ostracization, is just naive and deluded, or perhaps determined to protect what you see as a marginalized group (Muslim males, note not female but males) at all costs.

    The example you cite of a woman being forced to take her clothes off is quite interesting, because it was basically one single woman who came to the beach dressed like that with no beach gear and nothing underneath. She came there to protest, and more honestly to advance the islamist narrative. The obvious downside of the burkini ban is that women might be forced to do that, and she exposed the downside; too bad that no one would be dumb enough to do it unless they were protesting, and if they chose to protest in a certain way such that they didn’t have enough clothing on underneath, that’s their choice and they can deal with being partially uncovered at a beach where everyone else is wearing shorts and a bra anyhow.

    Liked by 2 people

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