Both Sides Are Wrong in the Burkini Wars

Women should be able to wear what they want, without armed cops telling them to change. But let’s be clear: The ‘modesty’ of the burkini is dictated by men, too.

Dmitry Kostyukov/Redux

UPDATE, 4:00 P.M, 26 August 2016: On Friday, the highest administrative court in France suspended the controversial ban on “burkinis” in a test case brought by human-rights organizations. Officials say the suspension will likely set the precedent for other areas seeking to prohibit burkinis via mayoral decrees. In its ruling the court described the edict passed Aug. 5 by the resort town of Villeneuve-Loubet as a "serious and plainly illegal" infringement of "fundamental freedoms."

LONDON — That great French Republic has banned another piece of cloth. The origins of this burkini (or burqini) ban furor are alarming. A Muslim group in Marseille wanted to have an all-burkini day, and the mere notion provoked a storm of controversy. Then the all-over bathing suit was banned in the Riviera resort of Cannes, where a French official rather absurdly described it as displaying “an allegiance to terrorist movements that are at war with us.”

One Corsican village called Sisco banned the full-body swimsuit following a darkly comical mass brawl involving French-Muslim men of North African origin who took offense at photographers taking snaps of burkini-clad women on a local beach. Some of the brawlers reportedly were armed with hatchets. Five people, including a pregnant woman, were injured. One man’s wounds were caused by a harpoon.

And then we had, this week, the stunning spectacle of a woman being compelled by armed French cops on the beach in Nice to strip off her burkini.

It seems that we are in the midst of mutual mass-identity hysteria.

The burkini is, in fact, a sad symbol of Islam today going backward on gender issues. France’s ban on it is a sad symbol of liberalism today going backward in reply.

Classical liberals of any religion or none would do well to remember that this does not have to be a zero-sum game. It is possible to oppose the French ban on burkinis while also challenging the mindset of those who support burkas and burkinis.

As a reforming secular liberal Muslim, I do not endorse the gender-discriminatory body-shaming and moralizing of burkas. I recoil, too, at the silly idea of a burkini. But I also believe that France’s ban on them is ridiculous, illiberal, and incredibly petty. It is also cynical.

As for liberalism going backward, when Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel drove a truck through the crowd in Nice on July 14, he sought to deepen division, and to further the ISIS aim of a global civil war. Strategically, he chose the right location.

The French Riviera is a traditional stronghold of French reactionaries. The area sees consistently high poll results for the far right. Last year, National Front leader Marine Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, ran a high-profile campaign there and succeeded in making huge gains. The region is now rapidly turning into a polarized hotbed of tension, pitching far-right sympathizers against Islamist extremists.

In this respect, the burkini ban is nothing but a product of political opportunism. With the proximity of elections looming, shortsighted politicking is the only consideration that matters. Local petty political chieftains would rather provoke national turbulence merely to win a local council seat than do what is in their country’s national interest.

As the 2017 French presidential and legislative elections approach, the country’s politicians are desperate to prove who can do the most—or anything at all—against the pernicious effect of jihadist terrorism. They have only a few months left. Sadly, grand gestures such as bans on symbolic pieces of cloth carry political currency in this game of mass-hysteria identity politics.

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This is how our most valued asset, source of strength and global envy—liberalism—is capitulating to identity-based communalism, short-term electoral gain, populist appeasement, and a clamor to just do something.

This capitulation is exactly what jihadist terrorists were hoping to achieve with their sustained random attacks.

Perpetual identity-based civil war, rather than war between countries, suits those who wish to build a new world order—a caliphate—carved out of existing states. Equal treatment on a citizenship basis means nothing to jihadists.

There is no better way to kickstart dividing people along exclusively religious lines than by committing atrocities in the name of Islam. Their hope is that everyone else also begins to identify Sunni Muslims primarily by their religious identities, in reaction to the atrocities. In this way, religious identity has won and citizenship becomes redundant.

But the backward trajectory of contemporary liberalism is matched by a backward trajectory within Islam today.

In modern Muslim-majority contexts and up until the 1970s, the female body was not shamed out of public view. As one Egyptian feminist asserts, this was mainly due to the social dominance of the relatively liberal, middle-class elite in urban centers.

But throughout the ’80s, theocratic Islamism began replacing Arab socialism as the ideology of resistance against “the West.” As is always the case with misogynist dogma, the war against the “other” necessitated defining what is “ours” and what is “theirs”—and our women, of course, were deemed “ours.”

Suddenly, women’s bodies became the red line in a cultural war against the West started by theocratic Islamism. A Not Muslim Enough charade was used to identify “true” Muslims against “Western” stooges. Religious dress codes became a crucial marker in these cultural purity stakes. Only the fanatic can ever win in this Not Muslim Enough game. Any uncovered woman was now deemed loose, decadent, and attention seeking.

In short, too Western.

Many Islamists advocate total segregation between the sexes, and in fact they would reject the burkini. The full-body swimwear would certainly not be allowed in today’s Saudi Arabia: still too revelaing!

In that sense, it is actually a step forward from Islamism’s peak in the ’90s. But it is still a step backward from before theocratic Islamism took hold among Muslims. The more women succumb to this Not Muslim Enough charade, the more theocrats demand of them. Is it any wonder, then, that some of the most abusive, oppressive societies for women happen also to be the most religiously conservative?

When writing recently in defense of her burkini invention, Aheda Zanetti equated concealing the female form with “modesty” no less than three times.

She confessed to not participating in sports when young “because we chose to be modest.”

But the assumption that “modesty” equates to covering up is a subtle form of bigotry against the female form. It goes without saying that harassment on Western beaches, where the female form is more normalized, occurs less than in conservative societies, even though it is still present. But in too many instances across Muslim-majority contexts this “modesty theology” has led to slut-shaming of women who do not cover.

In the worst of cases, misogyny disguised as modesty has led to mass sexual harassment on the streets, most recently by gangs of Muslim migrants in Cologne. In Egypt, it has even given rise to a mass public rape phenomenon. As Muslim feminists note, violating Muslim cultural “honor codes” (irdh) and modesty theology (hayaa’) can lead to heinous legal and societal reprimand and the gross fetishization of a woman’s body.

Just like any other practice rooted in religiously inspired misogyny, the burkini cannot be detached from the body-shaming tied to its origins. Aheda Zanetti continued to insist that her product is “about not being judged” as a Muslim woman, yet she is wedded to a practice that inextricably judges the female form as being “immodest,” as she, too, did in her own piece.

“I don’t think any man should worry about how women are dressing,” she argued.

OK. But it has only ever been conservative-religious Muslim men telling Muslim women how to dress.

Over the course of my years immersed in Islamic theology and Arabic, I remain unaware of any medieval female Muslim exegete used as authority by Muslim women for the “duty” of wearing a hijab. It is only ever male exegetes of the Quran who are cited preaching for the duty of female “modesty.”

And it is simply an undeniable fact that most Muslim women judged and attacked around the world for how they dress are attacked by other Islamist and fundamentalist Muslims, not by non-Muslims. These are religious fanatics playing the Not Muslim Enough game.

I am a liberal. The headscarf is a choice. Let Muslim women wear bikinis or burkinis. Liberal societies have no business in legally interfering with the dress choices women make. I have consistently opposed the ban on face veils in France, just as I oppose their enforced use in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Outside of this legal debate, though, and as a reforming secular liberal Muslim, I reserve the right to question my own communities’ cultural traditions and taboos.

As a liberal, I reserve the right to question religious-conservative dogma generally, just as most Western progressives already do with Christianity. Yet with Muslims, Western liberals seem perennially confused between possessing a right to do something, and being right when doing it.

Of course American Christian fundamentalists of the Bible Belt have a right to speak, but liberals routinely—and rightly—challenge their views on abortion, sexuality, and marriage. To do so is not to question their right to speak, but to challenge their belief that they are right when they speak. I ask only that secular liberal Muslims are also supported in challenging our very own “Quran Belt” emerging in Europe.

This is the real struggle. It is intellectual and it is cultural, more than it is legal.

Meanwhile, the French authorities are busily providing the ideal iconography that can, and will, be used by Islamist recruiters the world over. If we seek to debunk the jihadist myth that the West is at war with Islam, it would help not to oblige the jihadist propaganda machinery with ready-made imagery of armed police forcing conservative Muslim women to strip, under the shadow of a gun on a beach.

Or maybe that next election is just that worth it.