The sight of armed police officers forcing a woman to remove her garments on a public beach in France made me shudder. The so-called “burkini ban,” which led to this public humiliation, is a misguided attempt on the part of France to maintain a culture ruled by law and not religion.
There are so many things wrong with the law that government officials in France made a swift retreat from it. First of all, there is a certain irony in a country that allows topless bathers to prance around its beaches to see women being chastised for modesty. While the motivation for the burkini is primarily religious, many women say they cover up on the beach for other reasons, such as a sensitivity to the sun or protection in cold water. Shortly after the incidents on the French beach, women took to the internet with photos of themselves in swimming garments virtually indistinguishable from the burkini. Their point was that the supposed health reasons for the ban are ridiculous.
It is quite obvious that the burkini ban, like the one against the hijab that set off so much controversy some years ago, is meant to control and discriminate against Muslims. The French government uses the excuse that France is a secular society and will not tolerate overt religious displays. Yet no such bans are in place for Christian women religious who wear habits and veils. Nor have I ever heard of an individual being forced to remove a cross from around his or her neck. Until the state of France recognizes the rights of its sizable Muslim population, it will be a state of unrest.
The implication that the burkini is a symbol of the Muslim repression of women is also ironic. What could be more repressive and controlling of women’s bodies than insisting they uncover themselves in public? It is not for others to decide how a woman should dress, whether on the beach or the city street.
If France is serious about fighting Islamic extremism, the French will need to address the needs of the large Muslim underclass that is at an economic survival level. Heaping humiliation on top of poverty with bans on Muslim religious expression will hardly move France’s Muslims into the secular mainstream.
Wearing a burkini is not a provocation or an act of violence; it is simply a custom. Tolerating the customs of others, as long as they do not infringe upon the rights of anyone, is the hallmark of a democratic society. French officials need to get their heads out of their Speedos and respect a women’s right to wear one.