French burkini ban hinders, not liberates, Muslim women

Credit: Jarel Grant/Assistant Art Editor Credit: Jarel Grant/Assistant Art Editor
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Parachutes: French. Crepes: French. Champagne: French. And now, religious persecution: French.

Europe is still in the throes of a difficult integration process of refugees. In light of recent terrorist attacks, France is even struggling to integrate Muslims who have lived their whole lives in France.

The most recent controversy is, unexpectedly, a debate over bathing suits. The popularity of the “burkini,” a garment designed to adhere to traditional Muslim standards of modesty, appears to have sent the French administration into a panic over the “radical” tendencies of the bathing suits.

Many coastal towns in France have banned the burkini in the name of public safety, and the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, has supported them, calling the swimsuits “the enslavement of women.” A photo of a Muslim woman being forced to remove her clothing at the beach, surrounded by armed police officers, has received popularity online for its depiction of the harsh crackdown on religious swimwear.

This type of infringement on personal liberty of wardrobe choice is unfortunately not new to France. In 2004, the government passed a law banning “ostentatious” religious symbols in schools, which included Christian crosses and Jewish skullcaps, but was primarily aimed at the headscarf. And in 2010, burqas, or full-faced veils, were forbidden.
It is understandable that the French government is fighting a war on radical Islam, and has viewed the fashion trend as a manifestation of radical Islamic beliefs. Prime Minister Valls believes the bans should be viewed as a support of women’s liberty. “In France, we consider that a woman who wants to swim should not remain in the shadows. That women cannot be the object of any domination. And there is certainly masculine domination when it is judged that a woman’s body should be removed from the public space.” This was published in a recent article he wrote, challenging a New York Times article that featured the voices of French Muslim women and their experiences of being persecuted for their religious clothing.

Yet while the Prime Minister, along with many French officials, may believe himself to be protecting the rights of women, the opposite is true. This creation of the burkini signifies progress for the individual freedom of Muslim women. It allows them to enjoy a day at the beach without compromising their religious beliefs, rather than sitting in the shadows or remaining at home.

There is also the very likely possibility that Muslim women choose to cover themselves in public out of devotion to God, as an outward expression of their inward modesty before others, and their purity of heart. A married Muslim woman may wear her robes and hijab as a sign of commitment to her husband — her beauty is reserved for him alone. In fact, the concept is remarkably similar to that of nuns in various Christian faiths — dedication of body, mind, and soul to God alone. But a French official would never dream of regulating the religious garments of Catholic nuns at the beach.

The bans were implemented in the name of secularism — the belief that religion can only be practiced so long as it doesn’t impose its practices and beliefs on others. Apparently, a high school student with a cross is a religious imposition to their classmates, as is a woman in a tunic at the pool to other members of the public.
However, even a government has its own set of beliefs, and it is imperative that that government doesn’t unwittingly impose those beliefs upon its citizens. It is remarkably dangerous when a government tries to legislate religious beliefs, especially in such a diverse population. In fact, it is essential even to allow hateful groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, known for picketing funerals and attacking army veterans, to express their beliefs, because it’s the only way to ensure freedom of expression for all. The French mayors who imposed these bans may genuinely be trying to free Muslim women from male oppression, but they should still not be permitted to impose their opinions on these women, especially without considering the perspective of these Muslim women.

France has declared itself the protector of “modern Islam” — but what if the women in modern Islam want to cover up? If the burkini truly represents male domination over women’s wardrobe choice, then what has the French administration done other than replace that former male domination with their own?