The Battle Over the Burkini

Last summer I posted a piece titled “Judgment in Neoprene”, relating my ambivalence about the appearance of an Arab family at our motel swimming pool, the wife/mother of whom was covered in an ankle-to-neck-to-wrist dive suit plus black head scarf on a swelteringly hot August day. Her cultural-modesty outfit set off in me a running argument with myself, pitting the impression of a crass subjection of women against my default liberal bias toward honoring diversity in cultural values and practices.

Plenty of other people, it seems—indeed, whole nations—are experiencing the same quandary about what has infelicitously come to be known as the “burkini,” or burka bikini. As the New York Times reported last week, the issue has been particularly fractious in France, where “burkini bans” have been a burning issue this summer. Enacted by a number of French resort towns, including Cannes, the bans against total body coverage at the beach have inflamed political sensitivies, with no less a personage than French Prime Minister Manuel Valls decrying the burkini as both a means and example of “the enslavement of women.”

This issue isn’t likely to go away soon, first because the refugee crisis and ISIS-inspired terror attacks in Europe are keeping cultural clashes in the headlines, but also because the underlying political-philosophy problem is an enduring and a perplexing one. How does a modern democracy square its relativizing liberal proceduralism with its particular values? One way is to hew to some version of France’s guiding doctrine of laïcité, or secularism. That doctrine helped form the deal France held out to its former colonial subjects, offering them egalité and fraternité—a true and total welcome into French citizenship—as long as they agreed to subsume ethnic, racial, religious and other differences into the cultural and political modes of France.  

That bargain shaped the careers of such celebrated colonial cosmopolitans as Léopold Senghor, Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, but today it seems to be wobbling—on both sides. As Amanda Taub observes in the Times, the burkini brouhaha “is not primarily about protecting Muslim women from patriarchy, but about protecting France’s non-Muslim majority from having to confront a changing world: one that requires them to widen their sense of identity.” The struggle, Taub notes, is not about swimwear, but “really about what it means to be French,” with the controversies over burka, hijab, niqab and other Muslim veils serving as “a convenient focus for arguments that the ‘traditional’ French identity should remain not only the dominant but also the sole cultural identity in France.”

In France, veil restrictions first surfaced with a law in 2004 that banned wearing overt religious symbols in public primary and secondary schools. 2010 saw a measure banning in public any clothing that hides the face. More recently, former President Nicholas Sarkozy has called for banning the hijab in university settings. Amanda Taub adds, correctly, that “the veil is an especially potent symbol of anxiety over assimilation because wearing it is a choice,” one that “implies a decision to be different—to prioritize one’s religious or cultural identity over that of one’s adopted country.” In France, amid recurring pulsations of anxiety at jihadist attacks, that choice has become politically and culturally charged.

What does it mean to partake of, to exemplify, to be a nationality? As Americans we have the advantage of being pluralistic by definition, of not possessing—at least, not in the narrow and officially endorsed European way—a normative ethnic, religious or cultural template of “official Americanness” to impose on anyone. That simplifies things, making it far more difficult for us to consider outlawing someone’s religious garb on the grounds that it, well, isn’t American. If you’re an American citizen, you’re an American.

That isn’t true in the typical European nation, where nationalism is profoundly linked to ethnicity, and where an ever-accumulating diversity among the citizenry is sending seismic jolts through the polity. In France, the burkini bans have united politicians of the left and right. “This is the soul of France that is in question,” National Front leader Marine Le Pen wrote in a blog post. “France does not lock away a woman’s body, France does not hide half of its population under the fallacious and hateful pretext that the other half fears it will be tempted. The French beaches are those of Bardot and Vadim.” Can you imagine any American—let alone the leader of a rightwing political party—waxing patriotic about nudity, insisting that the very soul of the country depends on women being allowed to disport themselves like movie stars on the nation’s beaches?

Amanda Taub reminds us that “France does have another choice: It could widen its national identity to include French Muslims as they are. This may feel scary to many French, more like giving up a comfortable ‘traditional’ identity than gaining a new dimension to it.”

But is that an option European nations, and individual Europeans, are ready to take? As all this was going on in France, we were in Germany, where the government has proposed a burka ban in schools and universities, with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Interior Minister proclaiming that “the burka does not belong in our cosmopolitan country.” With my German friends I raised the question of ethnicity, culture and nationality in their country, wondering how far things might have progressed since I lived there twenty-plus years ago. To one friend I recalled the story of a boy on the youth basketball team I coached back then. Tony was the child of a German woman and a black American soldier who had left shortly after his birth. Wholly German by culture, family and upbringing, Tony spoke no language other than German, and yet as a dark-skinned child he experienced almost daily the backhanded compliment—we would call it today a microaggression—of Germans patting him on the shoulder and saying, Aber du sprichst so gut Deutsch! (My, you speak German so well!)

I asked my German friend whether such attitudes had changed in the two decades since I’d left. Since then, among other changes, the country’s Turkish-German population had grown larger, making inroads into politics, sports, culture and popular entertainment. Had Germans managed to move past their racial or “volkisch” conception of Germanness to a cultural and linguistic one? When they meet a boy like Tony, do they still think, “You are a dark-skinned foreigner who speaks German strangely perfectly,” or do they now think, “You are German like me”? 

No, my friend said, they don’t think like that. I asked him how long it might take for that to happen. He thought about it.

“Perhaps never,” he said.  

Such exclusionary realities go hand in hand with a readiness to restrict cultural and religious expression. No one is more adept at the calisthenics of “Toleranz” vis-à-vis other cultures than a German liberal, whose liberalism is amplified by a pained awareness of the catastrophic racist arrogance that was Fascism. Yet my German friend had little hesitation in condemning Islam for its treatment of women. He got a little exercised, talking about it. “When a culture accepts ‘honor’ killings of women,” he said,  “and refuses to punish rapists and even glorifies them, when it does not allow women to vote or work or drive, and in every way makes it clear that they are subservient, I have no problem with saying, ‘That’s no good, you can’t do that, not here!’ I have absolutely no problem with it!” And to him, preventing Muslim families from cloaking their women in public represents a legitimate way to enforce those values.

In the waiting area at Frankfurt Flughafen on our way home, my family found ourselves sitting opposite a Muslim couple. The husband was about my age, bearded, wearing a business suit; the wife was—well, I couldn’t see much about her, since she wore the full burkha, which leaves just a small slot open around the eyes. My daughter sat opposite her, pretending to read, but I could see her gaze returning again and again to the woman. As for me, I experienced once again my feeling that it is wrong to force women to cover up like that. But who am I to judge? Indeed, whenever these situations arise, I’m instinctively inclined to imagine how we look to them, an American family on holiday: a man in his fifties, dressed like a child in shorts and sneakers and tee-shirt; his reckless young daughter, babbling insolently and with no apparent deference whatsoever to parental authority; his short-haired, skimpily clad wife; the whole baffling entity frivolous, slovenly and loud.

This perspective alone would seem to be sufficient reason to withhold judgment. Then there’s the possibility, as Times columnist Roger Cohen has written, that while the choice to wear a burka may in some cases be imposed through systems of male domination, “equally it may reflect a woman’s independently embraced identity.... Inside the burkini lurk many different women’s journeys.”

I’ll readily grant that—and I’ll certainly grant that the prospect of Muslim women on French beaches being forced to disrobe by policemen is an ugly one, and the policy behind it badly misguided. (Since I started writing this a few days ago, the issue has exploded, sparking a substantial backlash, and today a French court suspended one of the bans.) And yet does granting all of that mean writing a blank check for any and all cultural practices? What about, say, clitoridectomy and other genital mutilations? Might that, too, reflect a woman’s choice and journey that we should honor? What about arranged marriages for thirteen-year-olds?

These are not facetious or rhetorical questions. I don’t think they’re answered easily. How to be humble in judgment... and yet still assert a value? I recall an American Studies professor in college, immaculately liberal in outlook, asserting that in such cases, and with all due humility and awareness of one’s own society’s shortcomings – with all necessary attention to the log in one’s own eye—ultimately you have to be able to make a judgment—to say, in this regard anyway, “our stuff is better than yours.” And, further: “When you are here, you have to play by our rules.”

“The burka does not belong in our cosmopolitan country,” says the German Interior Minister. Well, a lot depends what you mean by “cosmopolitan country.” Do you mean a country in which citizens of profoundly different values, goals and practices manage to live side by side peaceably and diplomatically, without constant strife? Or do you mean a country in which all citizens are expected to hold cosmopolitan views and values? That’s a big difference.

Americans are habituated, much more than Europeans, to a live-and-let live way of life. But that too has its limits. My wife is a social worker, deeply nonjudgmental by nature and by profession, well-trained in what is called “cultural competence.” She is also sensitive, however, to anything that smacks of systemic exploitation or subjection of women. As such she is precisely the kind of person for whom the burkini poses a difficult conflict. I asked her whether, when she sees a woman cloaked in black save for a tiny eye slit, her response tends to form more along the lines of:  a) “Different cultures hold profoundly different values, and recognizing this diversity makes it impossible, and even obnoxious, for me to judge this particular woman and her garb”; or b) “Though I believe in deferring to cultural difference, I also know that much of the world has traditionally been organized by male-dominated hierarchies, and so my suspicion of the burka as a means of keeping women down outweighs my deference to its validity as cultural or religious expression.”

She answered, “Unhesitatingly b).”

A protestor in France, meanwhile, hoisted a placard reading, “Don’t Hide Your Islamophobia Behind Your Feminism.”

This is no simple issue. What do you make of it?

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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