The mayor of Cannes recently banned the wearing of ‘burkinis’ on Cannes beaches until the 31st of August 2016. The burkini is a swimsuit that offers Muslim women options for swimming while remaining covered. The ban on the clothing in Cannes was highlighted yesterday when a woman was fined for wearing a hijab and dipping her feet in the water at a beach.
The ruling on burkinis states:
“Access to beaches and for swimming is banned to any person wearing improper clothes that are not respectful of good morals and secularism.”
“Beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation, when France and places of worship are currently the target of terrorist attacks, is liable to create risks of disrupting public order” (BBC 2016).
The discussion is apparently a sensitive one because of recent terrorist attacks in France, though it is unclear to me how stamping out all visible signs of Islam and forcing women to unclothe will get at the roots of terrorism. However, it is neither that, nor French laws on secularism that I want to discuss here.
The salient point for me is that in Cannes the burkini has now been banned because it is supposedly a “symbol of Islamic extremism” (BBC 2016) and of the oppression of women, and French police now have the power to fine women for not wearing ‘proper dress’ on Cannes beaches.
Stated very clearly: ‘we’ in the ‘west’ like to say that Islamic women’s dress is a symbol of their oppression because, we opine, they are forced to wear it. Now Islamic women in Cannes are being forced to wear ‘western dress’ by French authorities.
Does the liberation of women, according to those revered white, western, libertarian values, not mean women can wear whatever they like? Does emancipation not mean a
woman’s body is her own, to reveal or cover as she pleases? I’m talking about one of the simplest tenets of gender equality according to white, western nations: bodily autonomy. It is hugely hypocritical then, that in Cannes (and in other parts of France), women (that is, Muslim women) are being excluded from public space by being told what ‘proper dress’ is according to French standards (what are French standards anyway, when in 2010 Muslims made up 7.5% of the French population? Does the mayor of Cannes perhaps mean the standards of white, Catholic, French men?).
The west cries out against fines issued to women in Iran for improperly observing hijab, yet believes it is okay to fine women for wearing hijab, or burkinis, or any other kind of Islamic dress, in Cannes.
Furthermore, modern western modes of female dress are hardly seen as ‘proper’ within western countries. The western world wants ‘its’ women to cover up, not to be ‘too sexual’, not to wear mini-skirts (or bikinis?) for fear of provoking rape. What western women wear has been a means of policing their behaviours, bodies and access to public space for, well, ever. The hypocrisy of now telling Muslim women that they must dress according to ‘good’ secular feminine western standards is palpable. Those are the very same standards that have been policed and bounded by western men for centuries. This is much like Donald Trump calling for a screening test for migrants to the US to check that they are tolerant of LGBT+ people, while Trump himself opposes marriage equality and expressed support for the First Amendment Defense Act (the one that would allow businesses and organisations to discriminate against LGBT+ people on religious grounds). Or like the racist Pegida movement in Germany opposing refugees by drawing on the ideal of gender equality (which, they argue, brown people don’t share), when equality and the rights of women have never made it into the aims of right wing movements.
The ban on the burkini in Cannes is an exercise in hypocrisy and neo-colonialism, one that again uses the regulation of women’s bodies as a tool for the advancement of a racist western project of ‘civilisation’.
Muslim women themselves are saying all this and much more. I’ll end with some of their responses, collated by the BBC:
“I honestly don’t like exposing my body in public, and I like to work fashion into my preferences on how I wish to clothe myself.”
“A big part of being in a modern society, part of living in freedom, is allowing people to live their life how they want to live it.”
“By putting forward this ban [the mayor of Cannes] is infringing upon a human’s basic right to live how they wish to.”
“It’s not the responsibility of a public servant to dictate how I choose to cover my body.”
“People are always complaining that Muslims should integrate more, but when we join you for a swim that’s not right either.”
“Why is it necessary for us to show off our bodies when we don’t want to?”