Sadly, but not surprisingly, in the summer of 2016, it is not stealthy sharks but harmless burkini-clad Muslim women who have been thrust as the fiercest assault on the fragile French secular dinosaurs. On the pristine French Riviera, the lines between fashion, politics, rights and religion are being exploited as never before.
The burkini saga is deeply dividing France’s fragile democracy. This is a sad travesty of political opportunism strangling French secularism under its own weighty contradictions at the altar of morality-policing the female form, whose ‘modesty’ to this very day is tragically dictated predominantly by men. What a woman wears is her business alone.
The burkini debacle has (partially) and rightfully been reversed in a victory for common sense, a triumph for women’s rights as France’s supreme administrative court, Le Conseil d’État (the State Council), suspended the ‘burkini’ ban. The State Council was positively swayed by the testimony of human rights organisations.
The State Council asserted that the anti-burkini edict is an “illegal infringement of fundamental freedoms” and that local authorities could only limit individual liberties if wearing the burkini was a “proven risk” to public order. The judges reasoned that there was no such risk.
The French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) and Amnesty International all welcomed the Conseil d’État verdict. Though this might just be a Pyrrhic victory for there is a much deeper prejudice pervading French politics.
The burkini ban places the mantra of multiculturalism on trial. It segregates societies, castrates cultures, it is a pointless Orientalist top-down hegemonic sermonising of what a woman should and should not wear. The French burkini ban over-ruling takes place “legally” but not “psychologically” in French political “mindsets” who still have a long journey to go in unreservedly accepting “the other”.
Witnessing cops in Nice forcibly compelling a Muslim woman to strip off her burkini at Gun-Point was a stain on humanity. A draconian measure defeating the founding principles of France’s 1789 Revolution: Liberté, égalité and fraternité.
Misguided misogynists are under a faux illusion that ‘secularism’ is to be imposed from the barrel of a gun over a peaceful woman on a beach. Has the very ethos of French secularism descended down to mere draconian dress code policing? Has French secularism (laïcité) come down to patronisingly body-shaming women? Is that where secularism draws its inspiration from? This is neither the secularism Robespierre nor what the Founding Fathers sacrificed their lives for.
France famously boasts ‘freedom of expression’ on Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures. How about when a Muslim woman seeks sovereignty over her body? Why then does ‘freedom of expression’ selectively go out the window?
With the April 2017 presidential election, and a Republic reeling from a sequence of extremist attacks, French politicians of all hues are clamouring over the burkini debate boasting their stringent secular credentials. Majority parties are horrified at the rise of the Far Right in France, and are predictably exploiting the burkini issue to score points.
Contrary to popular belief, in France the burkini ban is not merely an extremist Far-right phenomena, even the socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls, maintained that the burkini was “a political sign of religious proselytising” and that the bans were necessary to maintain “public order”, deriding the burkini as “the enslavement of women”. Suddenly the primeval patriarchy have self-appointed themselves as moral arbiters of women’s clothing!
Marine Le Pen, of the xenophobic Front National, echoed her staunch support of the burkini ban: “The soul of France is in question... France does not lock away a woman’s body”. So is the ‘soul’ of France that fragile? Such a Westernised hegemonic view of a woman’s body delegitimises the very nuance of the rich diversity inherent within feminism.
Conservative mayors such as those of Le Touquet and Daniel Fasquelle oppose the burkini and vow to try their utmost to maintain a ban. Fasquelle even stated that the burkini “enslaves women”, inciting “terrorism”.
Nothing could be more misleading. Linking the burkini to terrorism is extreme naïveté. Should all French women in burkinis and men in beards be subjugated to alarming scrutiny by the security services? Superficial skin-deep religious burkini profiling never works. This is exactly what Isis relishes as it makes terrorism easier. By declaring what to look for in advance we give terrorists free reign in knowing what not to look like.
If authorities profile people of brown colour or men sporting beards, Isis will simply recruit white Caucasians like the Tsarnaev brothers of Boston Marathon fame. If authorities screen women with head scarves Isis will head-hunt women like the Paris 2015 Bataclan bomber who was a bikini-clad, alcohol-drinking Westernised woman. We cannot over-simplistically stereotype our way into surveillance.
In fact, radicals deploy outward hedonism just to avoid being detected.
France needs to be more intelligent about its application of secularism. Secularism is not a rigid top-down dogma but an accommodating spirit, especially in a multi-religious society which houses five million Muslims.
France needs to intelligently balance secularism with individual freedom(s) of expression. One fails to understand how the burkini (a body-suit) worn not in a state building but on a beach can ever be an affront to secularism.
Despite overturning the ban, an increasingly intolerant French political class of all stripes will refuse to swim (pun intended) with the Muslim burkini tide.
Policy promulgations do not alter prejudice. Regulations do not reverse racism. Laws do not change mindsets. The Conseil d’État is a drop on a still very prejudiced French beach.
The writer is a freelance contributor.