It is indeed true that a picture is worth a thousand words. The picture of armed police in Nice demanding a woman strip down is one apt representation of the status of women in the 21st century.
The fact remains that the rights and freedoms of women are still shaped and determined by male policymakers. The centuries-old tradition of policing women continues, now under the garb of ‘security measures’ or countering religious oppression .
Apparently, states feel quite content in holding supreme authority when it comes to decision-making with regard to female fashion and lifestyle choices. Burkini or no burkini, what they fail to realise is that the decision to wear less or more should always be a woman’s. There is not a single legitimate policy consideration that can be classified as a reasonable qualification to this freedom so as to take that decision away from women.
France, like many other supposedly secular and progressive European states, has consistently made clear its dislike of women who fall out with the standard image of female emancipation. In doing so, it has not only ignored the distinct individuality of every single woman, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, but has also strived to exclude them from societal life. This anti-woman narrative isn’t new, nor has it been punished in the past.
On April 11, 2011, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) received an individual application against the French Republic under Article 34 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). The applicant asserted that the ban on wearing clothing designed to conceal one’s face in public deprived her of the possibility of wearing the full-face veil in public.
The applicant alleged that articles 3, 8, 9, 10 and 11 of the ECHR, taken separately and together with Article 14 of the convention, had been violated. The alleged violations concerned the right to be free from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; the right to freedom of association; the right not to be discriminated against; the right to respect for private and family life; the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; and the right to freedom of expression.
The court stated that the impugned ban was justified in principle as it sought to guarantee conditions of ‘living together’, as per the value system of the Republic. While the ECtHR decided in favour of the French government, the court’s reasoning helps us understand, through its own internal contradictions, that there is no legitimate ground under which such actions can be justified.
This wasn’t the first case of its kind nor will it be the last but the one thing it sets out pretty clearly is that the actual, tangible rights and freedoms of women can and will be curtailed even on grounds of abstract ideas and principles. What women say, how they feel and what is most comfortable for them is entirely excluded from the discourse that shapes these laws and policies.
While it is clear that the ECtHR, in SAS v France discussed above, upheld the full-face covering ban, that can be largely attributed to lacking uniformity of practice in Europe with regard to such manifestations of religion or faith. Often, one argues that if Muslim women wish to live in societies abroad then they should assimilate and respect the norms and values of those societies.
What we fail to realise, or maybe actively choose to ignore, is the fact that covering up is a liberating experience for many Muslim women who genuinely believe that this allows them increased mobility and ease of interaction not only within their communities but within the larger society.
As affirmed by the Human Rights Committee (General Comment No 22), responsible for monitoring implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), while conceptions of morality remain distinct within each society, limitations on the freedom to manifest a religion or belief for the purpose of protecting morals must be based on principles that do not derive exclusively from a single tradition. After all, France, much like many other European states, prides itself on multiculturalism and its recent anti-women drive seems to damage that reputation.
The Human Rights Committee, in Hudoyberganova v Uzbekistan, held that the freedom to manifest one’s religion encompassed the right to wear clothes or attire in public which were deemed to be in conformity with the individual’s faith or religion. Further, the committee stated that to prevent a person from wearing religious clothing may constitute a violation of Article 18 of the ICCPR, which protects the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
While the West increasingly finds itself on the path where less is more and women are constantly speaking up in favour of their sovereign rights over their bodies, can we not for a minute take into account the possibility that wearing a burkini and going to a beach is an identical mode of expression of some kind of liberation?
Less may be more for some but more may not be enough for many. Societies that make a grand pomp and show of their struggles to attain their secular status shouldn’t have such difficulty digesting differences.
The writer is a lawyer.