When humiliating Muslim women is the law

August 31, 2016

French leaders claim they are protecting women's "freedom" with bans on a piece of swimwear worn by Muslim women. Sharon Smith, author of Women and Socialism: Class, Race and Capital and Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States argues that these bans have nothing to do with freedom.

THIS SUMMER, 30 French coastal cities, including the tourist destinations of Cannes and Nice, banned swimwear known as the "burkini" popular among some Muslim women.

For those unaware of the alleged hazards posed by this type of swim attire, let us first examine its characteristics. The burkini looks like a wet suit and is made of similar material, with a knee-length drape over it. When worn with a headscarf, it shares the basic features of a Catholic nun's habit or the modest style of swimwear worn by Orthodox Jewish women--both of which remain welcome at beaches throughout France.

Lebanese-Australian designer Aheda Zanetti, who invented the burkini, says that 40 percent of her customers are non-Muslims, including Jews, Mormons, Christians and non-religious women seeking comfortable and modest swimwear that also protects skin from the sun. But these other customers can rest assured that they are racially protected as long as they are not found "swimming while Muslim" in France.

In an Orwellian scenario, squads of armed French police scoured beaches this summer in pursuit only of Muslim women breaking this ridiculous law. Those "caught" in the act of burkini-wearing faced a fine of up to 38 euros (currently about $42), public expulsion from the beach and a criminal record. Dozens of Muslim women were caught in this police dragnet in August.

Opponents of Islamophobia march to a French beach to protest the "burkini" ban
Opponents of Islamophobia march to a French beach to protest the "burkini" ban (Fadia Dela)

WHAT PROMPTED France's political class to take emergency action against Muslim women's swimwear? Don't expect a logical explanation.

It all started in Cannes, where center-right Mayor David Lisnard signed the first burkini ban on August 11, claiming that the swimsuit is a "symbol of Islamist extremism" and must therefore somehow be tied to the horrific Bastille Day attack in Nice that killed 85 people on July 14. Although more than a third of the victims in Nice on Bastille Day were Muslim, the mayor of Cannes stood firm in his conviction that burkinis had played a role.

The next ban followed quickly in Villeneuve-Loubet, where conservative Mayor Lionnel Luca signed a law that only clothing that "is respectful to morality and secular principles, and in compliance with hygiene and safety rules" would be allowed on local beaches, invoking multiple openly racist caricatures of Muslim culture.

Socialist Party Mayor Ange-Pierre Vivoni signed the third ban in Sisco, a town on the island of Corsica. He vaguely claimed that the ban was necessary to "protect the population" after a recent series of attacks against Muslims on the island. The latest occurred when a group of white teenage tourists took a photo of a Muslim woman picnicking with a group of three families. Her husband objected, and a brawl ensued. Police were called in to protect the Muslim families as bottles were thrown and cars set on fire.

For the record, there is no evidence that any of the Muslim women was wearing a burkini at the time.

The next day, an angry mob of 200 whites gathered in a nearby town chanting, "This is our home," to march on a housing estate populated mainly by North Africans. Riot police prevented them from entering the estate. Despite the fact that the confrontations in Corsica appeared to include racists attacking the local Muslim population, the burkini inexplicably bore the blame.

In a matter of two weeks, burkini bans spread precipitously as French leaders across the political spectrum worked themselves into a virtual frenzy in supporting them.

On the far right, National Front leader Marine Le Pen argued that "the soul of France" was at stake in banning the burkini. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, from the center-right, launched his next presidential campaign for 2017 by calling the burkini a "provocation" and pledged, "I refuse to let the burkini impose itself in French beaches and swimming pools...there must be a law to ban it throughout the Republic's territory"--as 2,000 supporters applauded wildly, in an eerie resemblance to a Donald Trump rally.

But many Socialist leaders were equally self-righteous in their support for the ban, ostensibly as a blow against Muslim women's oppression.

Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls described France as immersed in a "battle of cultures," arguing that the burkini represents "the enslavement of women." Laurence Rossignol, the Socialist Minister for Families, Children and Women's Rights, declared that the burkini is a garment designed "to hide, to conceal the women's bodies, and the position it accords to women is a position that I fight against."

Thus, French politicians from the right and (self-described) reformist left agreed that burkini swimwear has placed the bedrocks of French society in such peril that immediate action was required.

But their justifications are so contradictory as to make the reasoning for this ban incomprehensible. The various explanations for the burkini ban range from 1) combating terrorism, 2) defending women's rights, 3) public hygiene, 4) water safety or 5) defending secularism--and in some cases, all of the above.

All of this leaves one wondering how a piece of swimwear can really act as the kind of powerful societal force as its detractors claim.

IN REALITY, the burkini ban is meant to collectively punish and scapegoat Muslim women, in a toxic intersection of Islamophobia, racism and sexism. Legally assaulting Muslim culture in the name of "secularism" is transparently racist and hypocritical.

The assumption that women should not control their own bodies, including their choice of clothing--which instead must be regulated and policed--is profoundly sexist.

French lawmakers have decided that women must be unclothed on beaches, as a symbol of Western cultural superiority. This explains how the bikini is now held up as a symbol of women's liberation. But the "freedom to uncover" can bring women no closer to genuine equality in sexist societies the world over--where uncovering merely leads to greater sexual objectification.

The "freedom to cover" might be a welcome change for those wishing to exempt themselves from the pressures of attaining hair-free and buff "bikini bodies" for any number of reasons, including the freedom to remove themselves from competition with other women.

Women should be allowed to choose their clothing for themselves, without anyone questioning their reasons.

In two separate incidents on August 23, French police subjected two Muslim women to public degradation for breaking the law--although neither was actually wearing a burkini. In so doing, they vividly demonstrated the war on Muslim women that the ban represents.

On that day, at a beach in Nice, at least four police armed with batons surrounded a Muslim woman who was wearing a hijab, a headscarf that does not cover the face, and a matching long-sleeve top over leggings.

Cameras captured images of the woman lying peacefully on the crowded beach, then the police arriving and, while crouching over her, forcing her to remove her outer top before they apparently wrote her a ticket. All this took place as white onlookers wearing bikinis and Speedos gawked at her without empathy. The woman's sense of humiliation was palpable.

That same day, three police--including one who witnesses said had his finger on the trigger of a pepper-spray canister--approached a mother with her children at a beach in Cannes, ticketed her and told her to leave. The woman, whose first name is Siam, was also wearing just a hijab and a long-sleeve tunic top over leggings. Members of the press who saw the ticket said it read that she was not wearing "an outfit respecting good morals and secularism."

Siam is a French citizen whose family has lived in Toulouse for at least three generations. She described the incident as "racist" and told reporters, "My children were crying as they witnessed my humiliation." She added, "Today, we are not allowed on the beach. Tomorrow, the street? Tomorrow, we'll be forbidden from practicing our religion at all?"

She also observed, "I'm in the country of human rights. I see no trace of the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. I am outraged that this could happen in France."

THE IMAGES of these two Muslim women deliberately demeaned by male police officers sparked global outrage on social media, with the hash tag #WTFFrance spreading like wildfire. Some asked what it would be like if Catholic nuns were forced to disrobe on a beach, with numerous photos of nuns frolicking in the water, without harassment, on French beaches this summer.

On August 25, the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) brought out 350 activists to protest against the ban on a beach in Leucate, chanting: "It's up to women to decide: too covered or not enough!" and carrying signs reading "Non à Islamophobie!" That same day, a throng of activists held a #WearWhatYouWant rally outside the French embassy in London.

This widespread popular opposition to the ban did not, however, result in self-reflection on the part of French authorities. On the contrary, Nice's Deputy Mayor Christian Estrosi threatened to file a lawsuit against anyone who has shared photos or videos of the two incidents, adding that lawsuits have already been filed "to prosecute those who spread the photographs of our municipal police officers and those uttering threats against them on social networks."

On August 26, France's highest court overturned the burkini ban in Villeneuve-Loubet, setting a legal precedent overturning all the bans. But some mayors have vowed to defy the court. Vivoni, for example, refused to remove the ban in Sisco, stating, "Here the tension is very, very, very strong, and I won't withdraw it."

Luca vowed to fight for a national ban in parliament. Sarkozy now says he will push for a constitutional ban on the burkini. Prime Minister Valls was likewise defiant, vowing, "The ruling of the State Council does not end the debate that has opened in our society on the issue of the burkini."

After the court ruling, some Nice beaches even displayed new signs banning "beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation"--which everyone knows applies only to Islam.

So the burkini battle rages on, in all its absurdity.

BUT THE war on Muslim women long predated the French burkini ban. In 2004, French lawmakers banned female students from wearing the hijab in public schools. In 2011, France banned both the burka (full body covering with mesh over the eyes) and the niqab (full body covering with a slit for the eyes).

Indeed, the French government's modern campaign against Muslim women practicing hijab has its origins in European colonial history, which it has shared since the 19th century. Imperialists and their apologists have long claimed European cultural superiority as a justification for dominating Muslim societies since colonialism began, in the name of "civilizing" its subjugated populations.

Today, a modern imperialist campaign continues throughout Europe and also the U.S., because Islamophobia--including its demonization of Muslim women--serves as an ideological weapon to justify endless imperialist wars in the Middle East.

In Chicago on July 4, 2015, for example, Chicago police arrested Saudi student Angel Al Matar who was wearing a niqab at a subway stop. The police verbally abused her and then forced her to strip down to her underwear while handcuffed. After spending a night in jail, she faced charges of resisting arrest and reckless misconduct. But she was found not guilty, and she is currently suing the Chicago Police Department for misconduct.

This is just one example of why combating the discrimination against Muslim women is a global cause.

As Indian novelist and political activist Arundhati Roy argued in her 2014 book, Capitalism: A Ghost Story, describing the French ban on the burka,

When, as happened recently in France, an attempt is made to coerce women out of the burka rather than creating a situation in which a woman can choose what she wishes to do, it's not about liberating her but about unclothing her. It becomes an act of humiliation and cultural imperialism. Coercing a woman out of her burka is as bad as coercing her into one. It's not about the burka. It's about the coercion.

All women should have the right to dress as they choose wherever they live, without government or anyone else's interference. This must become a basic human right if all women are to be truly liberated. The burkini ban is a step backward from this goal.

But the widespread resistance to the ban also provides hope for winning the future freedom for every woman to dress as she chooses, answering to no one but herself.

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