As CNN reports, and as I expected, the French Council of State, an administrative court, has overturned the bans on “burkinis”—the full body coverings for beachgoing Muslim women—enacted in 15 French towns. What were these people thinking? Why would a burkini be banned but a full-body covering for a non-Muslim deemed okay if it were worn to prevent sunburn? What about wetsuits for surfers? The reason, of course, is that burkinis are a symptom of religion, and to many French people violate the national policy of laïcité, the absence of religious influence in government.
The French (and now two German schools) have also banned niqabs, or face coverings, as I reported yesterday. (That ban includes burqas, the cloth sack that invariably covers the face as well.) One can make an argument that those bans are more reasonable, as niqabs impede your ability to see another person’s face, essential in many circumstances. And the niquab bans have been upheld by the European Court of Human Rights. However, as opposed to French law, I’d favor banning niqabs in certain situations—schools, banks, government offices, and so on—rather than the existing complete ban of the garment in public. The French also ban the hijab (headscarf) in schools, a move that I favor so long as symbols of other faiths are also banned.
A lot has been made, and rightly so, of this photograph of a burkini-wearing Muslim woman being forced by police to remove her garment in Nice:
That’s a hideous picture from a liberal democracy; it’s simply shameful. As CNN adds:
Authorities in Nice say the officers were simply exercising their duties. Deputy Mayor Christian Estrosi denounced the photos, saying they put the officers in danger.
“I condemn these unacceptable provocations,” he said.
In London, demonstrators created a makeshift beach Thursday outside the French Embassy for a “Wear what you want beach party.”
Jenny Dawkins, a Church of England priest, told CNN she joined the protest after seeing a photo of the incident in Nice.
“I think it’s a frightening image,” she said. “I find it quite chilling to see an image of a woman surrounded by men with guns being told to take her clothes off.”
So the French government did the right thing, and I hope this will start a national conversation about the regulation of religious dress.
But we need that conversation in the U.S., too. That’s because the outrage by liberals against the burkini ban, exacerbated by that photo, misses some other “frightening images”, like these:
And here’s a video of the religious police in Iran:
Beside Iran and Afghanistan, there are Islamic religious police, enforcing sharia law, in Gaza, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia. As I’ve said before, it didn’t used to be this way: the forced covering of women, and policing of it (note that “policing” can be done by families and peers as well as state officials!) is largely an innovation of the 1980s, when several Muslim states became theocracies:
Google Image for yourselves using the captions of the pictures above, and you’ll see the point. These women didn’t choose to cover; they were forced to. When regulations weren’t in place, the women were pretty much uncovered.
My point? Yes, the burkini ban is ridiculous and unworthy of a liberal state. The French have rightly overturned it. But those people who are revulsed by the photo from Nice largely ignore the even worse fate that befalls women in Islamic countries who violate their countries’ dress codes. As Maajid Nawaz wrote yesterday, it’s entirely consistent to oppose burkini bans but decry the much greater oppression that befalls Muslim women in Muslim countries:
. . . 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.
PuffHo, the biggest aggregator of Regressive Leftism, went into a dither about the burkini ban, publishing article after article about it on their virtue-flaunting website. A few screenshots of articles:
But yet you’d be hard pressed to find on anything on PuffHo about the repression of women in Muslim countries. So strong is PuffHo’s coddling of faith that they simply cannot bear to discuss what Islam does to gays, atheists, and women in their theocracies. The first article above, for instance (click screenshot) mentions “the frightening reality of policing women’s bodies,” and yet contains no mention of the much more severe policing in Muslim countries. (Ironically, one of the tweets in that article shows a cartoon of religious policing in a Muslim country, but it goes unremarked.)
Is this a “dear Muslimah” argument I’m making, engaging in “whataboutery”? Maybe it’s easier to change clothing police in our own lands than it is in, say, Saudi Arabia, and that’s true. But the whole issue of Islamic oppression of women will be ignored unless we express the same anger aroused by the photograph in Nice to the greater oppression of Muslim women by other Muslims—and not just in Islamic countries, but in the West as well. The burkini, while it should be legal, is oppressive: a way for men to exercise control over women, seen as temptresses whose hair, or ankles, can drive men to uncontrollable lust. (Burkinis, by the way, would be illegal in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.)
So yes, call out the French extremism shown in the photo. A progressive liberalism demands that. But we have only a limited amount of anger and attention at our call, and we (and unthinking “progressives” like HuffPo) need to devote most of that to the true policers of women’s dress: Muslim ideologues. What we need to do is efface women’s feelings that they need to wear the burkini, hijab, niqab, and burqa—in all countries— so they can be “modest Muslims.” And to do that, we need to engage a religious dogma that leads, among other things, to policing of clothing. We can at the same time allow some religious veiling, the symptom of a religious misogyny, but still attack the disease that produces those symptoms.