Almost exactly a year ago, socialist.ca wrote the following in response to a protest by Ontario women asserting their right to go topless without harassment by police:
“Despite several decades since the woman’s liberation movement first raised the notion that women should have control over their bodies and what they choose to wear on them, we live in a society just as obsessed with regulating what women wear. Women are blamed for the sexualisation of their body if they choose to reveal too much. Or they are blamed for blindly accepting “barbaric” beliefs if they choose to wear the hijab or burka. You’re either covering too much or not enough: either way, women are robbed of the fact that their bodies are their own.”
The Burkini debate in France is yet another example of both sexism and Islamophobia.
Sexism and Islamophobia
In August images of a Muslim mother being ordered to remove her clothing by French police officers carrying pepper spray and batons made international headlines. In fact, what that woman was wearing was a hijab, not an actual Burkini, but it was an indication that the explicitly racist French Riviera ban on full-body swimsuits with head coverings would be enforced by authorities with intimidation and fines.
The incident was at a beach near the location of the Bastille Day attack, but Nice was only one of 30 French municipalities that banned the Burkini and began serving fines to Muslim women on France’s beaches. A Nice tribunal had ruled that the ban, which began in nearby Villeneuve-Loubet was “necessary, appropriate and proportionate” to prevent public disorder. The tickets women began receiving claimed they were not respecting “morality/good morals” and “secularism.”
A Corsican mayor banned the Burkini amid violent clashes between villagers and Muslim families which resulted in riot police being brought in to stop a crowd of 200 Corsicans marching into a housing estate with a high population of people of North African origin, shouting “this is our home.”
But there was also an important legal victory: France’s Human Rights League (LDH) appealed the Nice tribunal ruling at France’s top court, and on August 26 the Villeneuve-Loubet ban was struck down, setting a legal precedent for all the 30 other Riviera municipalities with similar bans.
Unfortunately this ruling did not come as a result of mass protests and opposition by the French left and non-Muslims in France. Once again it is a test the French left and French feminists have failed. French Socialist mayors supported the ban, and Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that the burkini is “the expression of a political project, a countersociety, based notably on the enslavement of women.” But in fact, throughout the controversy it has been clear that the goal is not to protect women but to target clothing identified as a symbol of “Islamist extremism.”
The original designer of the Burkini, Australian Aheda Zanetti, was inspired to design swimwear that is both modest and comfortable and flexible for sports: “I created the Burkini to give women freedom, not to take it away.” On Australian beaches, Zanetti’s Burkini design is worn as a uniform by Muslim women lifeguards.
But that didn’t stop politicians elsewhere to use false concern for women’s rights to comment on the Burkini. The right-wing Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) simultaneously took issue with both the Burkini and the RCMP’s decision to allow Muslim women officers to wear the hijab. CAQ MNA Nathalie Roy Roy said that hijabs, like Burkinis, are accessories of radical Islam and shouldn't be part of a police department's uniform, and that she is in favour of banning the Burkini since to accept it is “to admit that a woman’s body is the object of temptation.” She later had to admit, however, that such a ban would countervene Quebec’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Québec solidaire MNA Manon Massé challenged the CAQ for trying to generate political capital with the issue, ‘’Let’s be serious, Islamist terrorism cannot be combatted with a discriminatory dress code…To combat violence against women, community resources exist. It is time to stop cutting and reinvest massively in those services. What Quebec needs are feminist politics, inclusive and progressive. We will protect neither women nor Quebec culture with dress codes.’’
True secularism, and true feminisim, respects a woman's right to choose, and does not regard women of colour as being any less capable than white women of exercising that choice competently and freely.