France’s controversial burkini ban has made headlines constantly over the last week after police were seen forcing a woman remove her outfit.
Authorities in this particular area decided to ban the burkini on secular grounds because it could “cause offence”.
Gil Bernardi, the centre-right mayor of another Mediterranean resort, Le Lavandou, entered the debate saying “[t]here are no burkinis on the beach (here) and we are making sure it stays that way. The beach is a place to relax, not a space for ideological or religious confrontation.”
Europe’s increasingly intolerant debate about the burkini is puzzling to many European Muslims. Liberal indignation at the sight of a Muslim woman in a swimsuit says far more about the fragile state of western secularism than it does the role of Islam in European societies.
French PM Manuel Valls called the swimwear “a symbol of the enslavement of women”. The burkini is a mark of modernity not illiberalism. In fact, the Islam practised by many young European Muslims today is flexible, tolerant and accepting of the west’s prevailing norms, whether on homosexuality, abortion or atheism.
To be clear, the burkini is not a burqa. Designed by Aheda Zanetti in 2007, the burkini is a full body swim suit that covers everything except the face whilst being light enough to swim in.
Muslim girls and women who are living in non-Islamic countries don this revolutionary swimsuit and finally get to enjoy the beach like anyone else, and also participate in popular sporting and leisure activities while still remaining observant of their religion.
The significance of the burkini extends beyond the beach – it is in fact an Islamic response accepting to a degree the modern world. It accentuates the Muslim woman’s visibility in dress and reflects an ownership over her dual identities.
The two worlds of a Muslim woman are the traditional, religious world of their parents and the world of the rest of us. Young, female consumer’s burkini-clad bodies represent a bridge between the dominant culture and Muslim communities, bringing them closer to the dominant community through assimilation and integration.
One ideology that media outlets continuously ignore is the fact that for European Muslims, hijab is not a tradition that they are forced to follow, but a conscious decision that they made as young women or adults which is meant to be a cultural, political, and even feminist statement. The possibility that some women wear burkinis as a bold rejection of the dominant culture’s conception of what constitutes “liberty” is left conspicuously unexplored by the mass-media.
Rather than using state power to coerce women to dress as we would prefer, we should practice the art of accommodating moralities to one another.
Friday’s decision of Le Conseil d’Etat, France’s highest administrative tribunal, to annul the ban, which it found unnecessarily restricted individual freedoms, was therefore a victory for commonsense. But that decision has not ended the controversy.
To reshape society by decree has, once again, provoked a spate of unintended consequences. Perhaps the community leaders and some politicians in France should be proactive in responding to the political and economic needs of their citizens rather than focusing on how Muslims dress in the beach.