As most of you know, three French towns, two on the mainland and one in Corsica, have banned the wearing of “burkinis,” a garment allowing Muslim women to go swimming while preserving their modesty and adhering to Islamic standards of body coverage. There are all kinds; this one, religiously correct, is offered by Marks and Spencer in several countries:
As the New York Times observes, in an okay but somewhat misguided piece, these bans are ham-handed attempts to enforce France’s laïcité policy of secularism, a Gallic version of America’s First Amendment designed to keep religious influence out of government. That policy already bans the burqa (big cloth sack) and the niqab (face covering that shows the eyes) in public spaces. One can make a good argument for those bans, as FEMEN head Inna Shevchenko did in a new piece in Business News (she opposes the burkini bans). But the burkini? If you’re determined, as the French seem to be, to stamp out authoritarian rules about dress, what sense does it make to ban dress—a form of swimwear that, after all, was pretty much what people wore in the 19th century? There’s no public safety rationale, either, as there is for the burqa and niqab. It’s just mean-spirited, or seems to be.
As the Times states, it’s an attempt to preserve “French culture” in the face of multiculturalism, with the assumption that French culture is superior to that of Islam—at least when it comes to dress. And it’s a misfired attempt to get Muslims to assimilate into French culture. Like the Times, I think using bans to achieve that aim is doomed to failure, for it will only create a backlash against French authoritarianism, alienating the very Muslims they hope to assimilate. And really, people should be able to dress as they want, with nobody telling them (save, perhaps, their employers) what they can and cannot wear.
But that brings up a problem, one that the Times handily avoids. But let me defer that to the third point below. Here’s my take on the burkini ban:
1.) The ban should be lifted, as it serves no positive purpose, is authoritarian, and will only arouse resentment in French Muslims. This is pretty much of a no-brainer for any freedom-loving progressive.
2.) That said, neither the birkini, hijab, niqab, nor burqa should be celebrated by those with Enlightenment values. These garments are, by and large, signs of oppression: the oppression of women fostered by Islam. They are there for one purpose: to preserve “modesty”, which, in Islamic culture, is a sign of morality. (See Sarah Haider’s tw**t below.) With these garments, the onus is put on women, seen as temptresses, to avoid inciting the uncontrollable lust of men. That, of course, is pure bullshit, since covering was much less frequent in Egypt, Afghanistan, and Iran before those states became theocracies. I doubt that the uncovered women in those countries in the 1970s set off an epidemic of sexual harassment and rape. And it’s clear that the women now covered in those states do so involuntarily: the government forces them to, and there have been all kinds of protests, beginning when the garments were first mandated up to the #MyStealthyFreedom site in which brave Iranian women remove their hijabs. Clearly, those women aren’t “choosing” to wear the hijab. (As a determinist, I use “choose” here as shorthand for “what one does if one’s brain is not impacted by social or government pressure”).
So no, it’s not “liberating” or “heroic” to wear Islamic covering. It’s a visible sign of a patriarchal religion that sees women as inferior. But, of course, the Regressive Left (who, properly, opposes senseless dress codes) has turned hijabs and other coverings into virtues, as “awesome expressions of personal style,” viz. this (click screenshot to see article from, of course, PuffHo):
No, they’re sad expressions of religious oppression. And putting flowers on your burkini doesn’t make it awesome.
3.) Covering is not a necessary concomitant to Islamic “culture” or “identity”. There are many Muslims who don’t cover, and many Muslim countries where covering is optional. And, forty years ago, covering in Muslim countries like Iran and Afghanistan was much rarer. One of the problems of the Times article is that it explicitly sees veiling as a sign of Islamic culture, and thus something that has ignited a culture war. But veiling is a latecomer, and although associated with Islam, is not something all Muslims do. In fact, I suspect that many Muslim women in the West would ditch the covering requirement if they weren’t pressured to do so. But that raises an important issue: “What about women who choose to veil?” And so to the next point:
4.) In my view, veiling is much less of a “choice” than it’s made out to be. Here’s where the NYT becomes credulous:
The veil is an especially potent symbol of anxiety over assimilation because wearing it is a choice. Whereas fixed characteristics like race or skin color do not imply any judgment on French culture or values, clothing implies a decision to be different — to prioritize one’s religious or cultural identity over that of one’s adopted country.
Of course it’s not a “choice”—in the sense I defined above—in many countries. And even in the West, if you’re part of a family that sends you to a Muslim school where you must wear hijab, or belong to a social group of Muslim girls or women who wear hijabs, how can you claim that your decision was free from social pressure? I certainly wouldn’t accept at face value a Western Muslim’s assertion that she is veiled by choice. Whether that’s true depends on her social and familial history. As always, caveat emptor when accepting someone’s personal narrative.
When I hear the “it’s my choice” argument, I always remember a discussion I had with a bunch of Muslim women students at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey. In that school the hijab was banned. I was there to lecture on evolution but had a great time meeting a number of curious and progressive Muslim students. (They were so progressive that we all went out drinking and dancing one evening!) I asked the group if they were in favor of the hijab ban. They unanimously said “yes!”, with their argument being this: “If the hijab were optional, some Muslim women would put it on, and then they would start to shame the rest of us as ‘bad Muslims’ for refusing to wear it.” Now that is social pressure, and it occurs even when covering is optional. If a Western Muslim tells you their choice was made without social pressure, look at their families and their social groups, and who they hang around with now. My guess is that although some women wear hijab or other garments without any pressure to do so, it’s much rarer than you think—or they claim.
5.) A culture that promotes covering is, in that respect, worse than a culture that doesn’t mandate or pressure women to cover themselves. The New York Times repeatedly argues that although the French see their own standards of dress as “competitive” with Islamic covering, this is a false dichotomy. They are not competitive, says the Times, and can coexist.
This is only partly true. Such cultures can and do coexist. But I claim that a culture that mandates few or no dress standards, particularly abjuring patriarchal ones, is better than the same culture with religiously-enforced or -pressured covering.(What I mean by “better” is “more conducive to human flourishing.”)
It stands to reason that wearing a symbol of patriarchy and oppression gives you less freedom than not having your religion, your government, or your family and friends dictate your dress. There will always be cultural dress standards, of course, but the French do see covering versus freedom of dress as competitive views—and for good reason. Covering, whether or not “voluntary”, is still a visual sign of religiously based oppression, and is counter to the Enlightenment values underlying laïcité. So yes, a culture that promotes freedom of dress is, all things equal, better than one that promotes sexist coverings. And it’s for just that reason that it’s bad for the French to ban the burkini: it takes away some people’s freedom.
But that brings us to the last question:
6.) If we see veiling as bad, but we don’t favor banning it, what can we do about it? Well, one thing is to call it out, as I’m doing here (and see Maajid Nawaz’s tw**t below). We needn’t pretend that veiling is wonderful, or say that it’s none of our business because it’s Muslim “culture”. (If it is, that culture is extraordinarily malleable.) We know where it comes from—religiously based oppression of women—and that’s enough to make a cogent argument. Sarah Haider’s solution, below, is to make the argument that morality doesn’t equate to modesty in dress. She’s right, of course, as religious “morality” often has little to do with right or wrong, but more with things like sex and diet. But making her argument is a tough one.
In the end, the only way to solve the problem is to create the kind of a society in which women do not feel any pressure, at least from religion, to dress in a certain way: a society that doesn’t need hashtags like #MyStealthyFreedom. That is not French society now, and it won’t be if the New York Times has its way. In their own clumsy way, that’s the kind of society that the French cities were trying to create with their misguided burkini bans.
I don’t know the solution to the problem now, but I do know that creating such a society would be much easier if we simply got rid of religion.
And now, some tweets about the burkini (and covering in general) from ex-Muslims (Haider) and liberal Muslims (Nawaz and Nomani). Nomani’s tw**t is particularly lovely.