Let’s Talk about Burkhinis!

Let’s Talk about Burkhinis! September 2, 2016

So I’m trolling through Facebook postings and I find an article on a French ban of a garment called the burkhini on French beaches. Actually it isn’t a ban on the burkhini. It is a ban on “ostentatious religious garments” or “garments that make an ostentatious show of religion” on the beach. It isn’t really different from a similar ban on such clothing in French public schools. (And to answer one criticism, it is simply false to say a nun in her habit wouldn’t attract the police on a beach. Her clothing would be equally outlawed.)

The point is simple. French public spaces are to be completely secular, with no sign of religion present. It appears that for French politicians such public displays of religion are antithetical to French values.

Now it is as pointless to attack those values (which include the right to be nude on the beach) as it is to attack the values of Malaysians who absolutely forbid nude bathing and in many swimming places even forbid men and women to mingle however they are dressed. There simply isn’t any universally accepted standard of human flourishing that would allow us to choose between public nudity and public clothedness. Each society must make its own rules that both citizens and visitors must respect.

Nor does an appeal to the value of modesty help us. The topless French matron visiting the beach with her grandchildren doesn’t regard herself as immodest or immoral. She would never dress that way for the opera or casino. She is dressing appropriately for the particular place and occasion. And of course the Malaysian Muslim housewife in comfortable short pants and a sleeveless blouse in her own home, or for that matter in a two piece swimsuit during women’s swimming day at the pool, doesn’t think of this as immodest or immoral either. She would not dress this way to go out in public, but it is perfectly okay for the environment.

There are a few dozen other standards of modesty between the extremes, and they change. The burkhini would have been considered quite daring on an English beach 150 years ago, possibly illegal. And for some Muslims today the burkhini is way to much given that it inevitably displays the female shape. In Malaysia one still sees posters in mosques calling anything less than three overlapping shapeless garments as “fashion from Hell.”

No – the question here concerns the perception that the burkhini is an “ostentatious” display of religion that should not be seen in a secular space. And that in turn depends on whether it is a display of religion, and whether it is ostentatious. (Whether such laws are allowed by the French constitution has already been decided by the courts, they are not.)

And here things get muddy indeed. Here in the US both men and women concerned about the effects of sun and skin cancer increasingly wear garments that cover them from angle to neck to wrist for outdoor sports. One may have noticed (I admit I did) that the Italian women’s beach volleyball team wore such garments (minus head covering) at the Olympics. I don’t believe they were Muslim.

When I scuba dived in Singapore we all wore skin suits, gloves, boots, and hoods to both protect against the sun and the extraordinary number of little creatures that will bite and sting you in the water. So really I have a kind of personal burkhini available, although I don’t generally wear it in public since  . . .well we don’t want to go there.

A recent news article pointed out that something almost identical to the burkhini was popular in China, given that a large number of Asian women want to keep their skin fair at all costs. My own wife carries a parasol, and it is common in SE Asia to see women wearing gloves past the elbow when they drive to keep the sun off of their arms.

So arguably the burkhini is just a practical form of sun wear for the modest and those conscious of their complexion. Which would fit with the stated purpose of its creator.

Except. Except there is no such thing as merely “practical” garments. All garments are statements of identity and belonging, and this is absolutely true of the sort of covering of the head and hair with “hijab” among Muslim women. I’ve heard many Muslim women, in the US and back in Malaysia, who talked about how beginning to “cover” to wear the head scarf was an important statement of their own maturity and identity as Muslims. Similarly many Muslim men in the US began wearing beards to show their Muslim identity and solidarity after the travails faced by their community after 9/11.

There is, moreover, in intensive internal Muslim debate about the meaning of “covering” and whether it is simply to be modest or represents a voluntary submission to men. For at least some Muslim women the head covering is a symbol, but not a positive symbol of modesty or religious identity, but of patriarchy and oppression. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/12/21/as-muslim-women-we-actually-ask-you-not-to-wear-the-hijab-in-the-name-of-interfaith-solidarity/)

It is simply naive to believe that any of us, as individuals, can dress in a way that doesn’t make some kind of public statement about who we are and what we believe. Or that our clothing doesn’t in some way represent conformity to the demands of society, or some significant part of society. At significant University events it simply isn’t acceptable for me to wear less than a suit and tie, covered by a rather gaudily colored robe, with a ridiculously long “hood” fringed in green and pink. A reminder that we don’t all work at Google.

And identity? Clothes are how we can identify hipsters, hippies, yuppies, “suits” (that’s me), gangsters, thugs, goths, emos, rockers, rednecks, and on and on. And some of that clothing is religious and obviously so. A Buddhist monk or nun, a Vedanta swami, a Santeria priestess, Christian clergy of various sorts (I knew a Bishop who wore red socks even when he was hiking, and always his cross), Sikhs, and Orthodox Jews all wear distinctive and identifiable forms of clothing that are mandated forms of religious identity. I don’t know what these different groups would regard as appropriate beach wear. Some have ideas about modesty that closely resemble those of Islam, others don’t. But it seems doubtful that they could completely avoid displays of religious identity even at the beach.

And they might not want to. Or put another way; why should they?

Why should they? There is an answer, one that I hear rather often from those non-religious persons whom I know, and who may well share it with the French. These non religious people, many self-identified atheists, regard the mere presence of religion and religious identity in public is oppressive. What looks like religious freedom to me looks like yet another reminder that they, the non-religious or other-religious are oppressed, reviled, hated, and persecuted.

For them the presence of religious symbols of any sort in the public space is no different in kind than flying confederate or nazi flags. Burkhini, or cross, or Franciscan habit; all can be seen as flags saying that this public space is in the possession of religious people: and that everyone else who isn’t a member of the club of religions is not and never will be welcome.

Does that sound extreme? Then we’ve forgotten the power of symbols to exclude, to create their own space and push others out. We’ve forgotten the politics of religious symbols, and the power they have to mobilize people and manipulate people. And perhaps most of all we’ve forgotten the way the power of symbols is multiplied by the media, both for commercial purposes and through clever manipulation by political forces.

A lone woman in a burkhini may be displaying great bravery going against the grain of public dress solidarity on a Riviera beach. But entering a beach with only women in burkhinis would require equal or greater bravery by a topless woman. Because at that point whatever the intentions of the burkhini wearers, their presence together would constitute a statement of religious identity and the forms of exclusion it can entail.

So how do we separate the lone woman, the brave woman, the modest woman in a burkhini from all the things her dress symbolizes to others.? How can we see her as something other than the vanguard of a creeping force steadily eroding European values, brought in on waves of Syrian refugees and plane loads of wealthy tourists from the Gulf States and the terrorist minions of ISIL? How can she become a person and not a symbol of our darkest fears.

The only possibility is humanization, looking beyond the complex and contested symbols with which we intentionally and inadvertently dress ourselves. It means looking at her, looking at anyone, not merely as a mannequin dressed in symbols but as a human being whose complex choices about modesty, health, fashion, and a desire to enjoy the seaside led her to dress the way she dressed. And of course it means also seeing as humans who in the midst of the same choice go topless or wear nothing at all if allowed by local social norms.

At the same time how do we keep our public spaces from becoming wastelands defined by the power of religious, cultural and ideological symbols to exclude? I believe we will need to insure that they are robustly cosmopolitan, places where any religion, all religions, and no religion at all are equally welcome with a public presence. And entailed by that; any standards of modesty. Only by overwhelming every mono-culture with diversity can we create truly free public spaces.

There are not so many places in this world that possess the culture of freedom and individual self-expression that allows this kind of humanistic cosmopolitanism to thrive. If we value this culture then we must understand that it is only strengthened by the exercise of both liberty and human-heartedness. What we need to exorcise from our beaches isn’t burkhinis. It is fear.

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