What does the French state have in common with Islamic State? By the end of this week they might both have banned the burkini.
From batcrazy ISIS central, the town of Raqqa, come stories of armed men forcing women to cover up. Now from batcrazy Cote d’Azur come stories of armed men forcing women to uncover.
This ill thought out, through the looking glass situation, is a long way from the debate about the veil or burka and will do the opposite of what is intended. It will enflame community tensions and it falls into the trap of allowing the liars of extremist Islam to argue that ‘the west’ suppresses the religion.
Following the terrorist mass murder in Nice more than a dozen French towns have banned the burkini on the grounds that, in the opinion for example of Nice council, it “overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks”. Subsequently a woman was forced to take off her burkini on a beach in Nice, and another in Cannes, who was wearing leggings, a long sleeved top, and a headscarf on the beach, was fined for not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism”.
There are two immediate problems with this statement. The first is the value judgment, now also legal judgment, that a burkini does not respect good morals. You could argue that a man in a mankini or a half speedo pouch, is not respecting good morals, but only once you’d stopped laughing at him, and even if you did make the argument, the police would be unlikely to send four armed officers to investigate. Nor, should anyone complain that a woman in a full wet suit and swimming hat was offending them, would the full weight of the law fall upon the unsuspecting surfboarder.
The second problem is that town councils are now taking it upon themselves to enforce a code of dress which respects secularism. However, they are almost certainly only enforcing it about one particular religion. In the event that the good Sisters from the Chapel of Our Lady of Mercy should show up for a quick paddle and few sandwiches on the beach it is unlikely they would be told to get their habits off.
The first town to lose its reason and devotion to ‘Liberté’ was Villeneuve-Loubet near Nice. The ban was challenged but the Nice tribunal upheld it on the grounds that it was necessary and proportionate to prevent public disorder.
The case now goes to the national ‘State Council’ which can take a view on the lower court’s view that the burkini was liable to ‘offend the religious convictions or (religious) non-convictions’ of other people on beaches. The argument is that in a country which takes the separation of religion and state very seriously the burkini is part of, as Prime Minister Valls puts it, ‘a political project founded on enslaving women’.
That argument stands up a lot better if applied to the full burka, less so to an item of clothing designed to liberate conservative women and give them more space in which to be free – as in at the beach.
Delacroix’s famous painting of ‘Liberty leading the people’ shows Liberty with a bare breast. Surely she also wants the right not to show it if she chooses?
Liberty! Equality! Coverupity! It just doesn’t have the same ring.