Should women be outlawed from wearing religiously mandated swimsuits that cover most of their bodies at publicly funded pools and beaches?
In the U.S., a citadel of personal freedom, the answer if even broached would likely be a no-brainer “no,” but not in France.
In many French cities today, such ordinances outlawing so-named “burkinis” are common despite a 2016 ruling by the Council of State, France’s top administrative court, that mayors do not have the legal right to codify and enforce such bans.
If you don’t already know, burkinis are uber-modest swim attire covering everything but the face, hands and feet that some Muslim women choose to wear to comply with Islamic religious and cultural standards. (I’ve posted previously on Islamic dress edicts for women, here and here.)
French court suspends city ban
When France’s top court ruled in favor of burkinas in 2016, it only suspended the ban in a single town, Villeneuve-Loubet, near Nice, but the decision was understood to potentially affect similar existing bans in other cities around the country. Some 30 French cities prohibited burkinis at that time.
However, in practice, quite a number of French municipalities still impose such bans today.
Notwithstanding the obvious human-rights questions inherent in such prohibitions, France is a somewhat special case, having since the 18th-century French Revolution evolved strict national opposition to representations of religion in the public square. Rigorous separation of church and state is now the law. A CNN article online late last month explained:
“France rigorously enforces secularism. Religious symbols aren’t allowed in any publicly owned spaces, like public schools. Even lawmakers aren’t allowed to wear religious symbols.
“Secularism, “laïcité” in French, is deeply ingrained in French culture.
“Its roots lie in the French Revolution, when the people rose up against the both the monarchy and the rich, including the Catholic clergy. The separation of church and state was made into law in 1905 — almost 100 years after the Revolution.
“It’s also about allegiance. Many believe that French identity is a person’s primary identity and that nothing comes before it.”
Burkas banned in 2011
In 2011, France became the first European country to ban women from publicly wearing a burqa (a traditional Islamic all-body covering that includes dense face mesh) and a niqab (a full face veil that leaves the eyes exposed). The government had earlier, in 2004, banned Muslim headscarves and other “conspicuous” religious symbols in French schools. This year, the French Senate voted to ban religious symbols on school trips, essentially forbidding from attendance mothers wearing headscarves.
The burkina ban is an offshoot of that trend, which was largely driven by public worries about increasing incidents of radical Islamic violence on French soil and elsewhere in the West. Penalties for breaking the burqa law included fines up to 150 euros (about $205) or public service.
The European Convention on Human Rights upheld the burkini ban in 2014 after a 24-year-old woman appealed to the court to rectify what she held was France’s infringement on her religious freedom.
Nonetheless, the bans have generated controversy even among some non-Muslim French citizens, who view the laws as an assault on religious freedom. Others, though, see obscurantist Islamic dress as inconsistent with France’s open, fundamental secularism.
These raise interesting questions. When, for example, is a woman’s dress simply a representation of personal fashion choice, and when is it a mandated manifestation of religious dogma? The former is benign (unless, of course, it’s leisure suits in the ’70s), but the latter, particularly in uber-secular France, could be viewed as a religious assault on deeply held French national church-state-separation values.To protest the continuing bans, members of Alliance Citoyenne, a group of Muslim women in the city of Grenoble that advocates for social issues, last month started wearing burkinas in city pools every Sunday (until the law is changed) as an act of civil disobedience. They say their political act mirrors that of black Americans, specifically Rosa Parks (who refused to yield her seat one day at the front of a bus), during the U.S. civil rights era in the 1960s.
One Sunday, as the Alliance Citoyenne protesters left the pool, they were apprehended by police and later fined. (In the video embedded below, prominent atheist Richard Dawkins weighs in on the burkina and other issues.)
One study agrees with them
The protests have had some academic support. A Stanford University study in January concluded that France’s 2004 ban on hijab (Islamic female hair coverings), Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses in public schools had “a negative impact on Muslim girls,” reducing high school graduation rates and longer-term success in employment. Researchers added that the ban reduced assimilation by “casting religion and national identities as incompatible.”
Well, it could also be fairly argued that immigrants insisting on imposing their alien religious traditions on the adopted, fundamentally secular nation that has embraced them is an act of willful rejection of assimilation and an attack on that nation’s sovereignty.
The human right of religious freedom—which, let’s admit it, is the freedom to think any irrational thing you want personally, without persecution—is not the freedom to inflict such superstitions on others in publicly funded and purposefully secular public spaces.
Meanwhile, in the U.S.
In the U.S., the same cultural battles are being fought between secular government and evangelical Christianity. As I have written about many times before, the Christian Right in America has zero interest in the secular founding principles of the nation but is mainly interested in disingenuously insinuating their religious doctrines and symbols as deep into the public square as possible—particularly in government, schools and courts. To Americans who value our founding principles, these are all bright red lines.
To the French, I suspect, a full-body burkini at a public swimming hole (where topless female sunbathers have long been de rigueur), is as red a line as, to Americans, signs proclaiming “In God We Trust” increasingly littering the hallways of U.S. schools. (I’ve previously posted the latter issue, here and here.)
For people who trust evidentiary reality over supernatural imaginings, wariness of the concrete effects of airy dogmatism is more than rational.