Laïcité and the burkini ban

Recently, a woman was assaulted on a beach in Nice, France, forced to disrobe in front of a crowd of onlookers, including police officers — the very same police, in fact, who were ordering her to undress. Nice, like a growing number of French cities, has a ‘burkini ban,’ mandating that women are not allowed to wear clothing that violates France’s secular values, or laïcité. Ostensibly, France is a deeply secular country, and the nation has a number of bans on the display of religious public symbols in public life, but all bans are not created equal, and this one is no exception, for while it ostensibly addresses religious symbols, in strict point of fact, it focuses specifically on expressions of Muslim faith, particularly various forms of hijab, including the now notorious burkini — which was invented as sportswear by a Muslim woman who was tired of seeing her sisters suffer in clothes unsuited to sports because there were no sports clothes that allowed them to cover themselves in accordance with their beliefs.

Living in the US, which purports to be a secular nation but isn’t, I see France repeating many of the same mistakes we do. Its zeal to enforce laïcité is almost religious in fervor, and it’s become a brilliant tool for enforcing racism and Islamophobia while retreating behind much-vaunted ‘French values.’ We are not, the government insists, Islamophobic, or attacking the growing numbers of Muslim immigrants and refugees on our shores, we’re just trying to uphold French culture, which just happens to be secular. It is their failure to assimilate, not their Muslimness, that is causing the problem, the government assures us.

France routinely crops up in the news for its approach to laïcité, and there’s a common thread in incidents where people are asked to remove religious insignia or items to attend school, enter public buildings, walk down the street, and be photographed for identification cards: All of those people are Muslim. France appears to have confused the ostensible value of secularism and lack of interaction between church and state with something that might better be termed patriarchal militant atheism.

The desire to separate church and state is valid — I wish that the United States lived up to supposed secular values and kept religion out of politics, and politics out of religion. In a free and fair nation, religious faith should not dictate any aspect of government, from the timing of public holidays to the passage of legislation. By the same token, the government should not step in to interfere with the practice of religious faith, unless religion in some way interferes with the safety, health, or liberty of others — e.g. if human sacrifice plays a role in someone’s faith, the practice should be banned because it involves murdering people. I choose an extreme example for a reason: The vast majority of things religious people do does not affect me in any way, shape, or form, unless I claim that the very existence of religion is a gravely offensive interference with my life.

France may think that religion is out of politics, but politics isn’t out of religion. Aggressively persecuting religious people is not secular, equal, and value-neutral: Instead, it assigns a value to some religious faiths and their expressions that doesn’t exist elsewhere. The French government doesn’t aggressively attack crosses, stars of David, the Panj Kakar, prayer beads, bindhis, kippahs, and a wide variety of other religious insignia worn by people in connection with or as expressions of their faith. In fact, French government funds even support both Catholic and Jewish public schools.

The specific target of French wrath, with the occasional exception of Sikh turbans, is the hijab — by which people mean everything from the niqab and abaya to a simple headscarf. And by extension, that means that the French government is particularly focused on Muslim women, dictating what they can and cannot wear. The government claims this is a ‘security issue,’ as evidently all hijab are actually secretly made of explosives, and it also mouths excuses about ‘feminism,’ ‘equality,’ and ‘oppressed women,’ despite the fact that Muslim women and girls are risking their personal freedom, education, and social comfort to wear items that are important to them as objects of their faith, and items that they are wearing by choice, not because male relatives are pinning them to the ground and forcing them to wear them.

In a truly secular society, religion is well out of politics and politicians may not interfere in the practice of religious faith. It is not a purely atheist society in which no one is even allowed to practice religion, but a place in which someone riding public transit is as likely to encounter a Catholic nun as a hijabi as a Buddhist using prayer beads as a married woman wearing a bindhi as an atheist buried nose deep in the Times. Secularity should mean that everyone is allowed to freely practice according to their beliefs and values — that no one is forced to practice religion, but by the same token, no one is forced not to practice religion. A woman in a burkini can be comfortable, stylish, and less likely to burn on the beach, and her existence doesn’t interfere with a man in a perilously small Speedo or someone sporting her birthday suit or someone in a basic tankini or someone chilling in pants and a t-shirt with no intention of getting in the water.

The issue here isn’t one of security — unless you think that Islam as an entity constitutes an inherent security threat, and that by extension, representations and expressions of Islam give aid and comfort to terrorists, a la Nazi symbols and the alt right. I invoke Godwin’s law here because at this point it feels appropriate: The French government is saying that the very idea of the hijab and the sight of a Muslim woman having fun at the beach is dangerous, illicit, possibly even inflammatory. It doesn’t escape notice that these bans started appearing with more regularity as the number of migrants to France increased, and the amount of right wing nationalism at play began to rise as well.

This isn’t about religion, but about nationalism and a notion of ‘pluralism’ that requires everyone to disappear like the borg into their adopted nation, rather than expressing their freedoms and living as part of a diverse nation. After the Charlie Hebdo shootings, and the Nice attack, and the Paris massacre, France has fixated on ‘Islam’ and ‘Daesh’ as the cause for disruptions to domestic security, ignoring the fact that draconian legislation and abusive tactics only feed the fire of extremists looking for a way to leverage the sentiments of non-Muslim French people against Muslim residents. Islam doesn’t make people dangerous. Bans on expressions of Islam don’t make people safer — in fact, they make Muslims less safe by making them acceptable targets of both individual and state violence.

This is also not about feminism, or at least, not about what feminism should be. Policing women on the basis of what they wear and forcing them to dress in accordance with what other people think is in fact highly patriarchal, whether we’re forcing women to strip down, covering women up, blaming victims because of the way they dressed, or judging women for not dressing in sufficiently feminine ways. Women — all women — need to make their own choices about what they wear, when, why, and how, and suggesting that it is the government’s role to do this is deeply offensive.

We are told that this is about secularism and French values, and the need to maintain a truly French society. It’s really about nationalism, and nativism, and exclusion, and hatred. It’s become a vehicle for attacking people on the basis of their gender, faith, and race, and in a country that claims to value égalité, it provides an excellent excuse for interfering with the liberté of others — in other words, it’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to.

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Photo: burkini, cabellmon, Flickr