Last week French police officers patrolling the beaches along the Côte d’Azur towards Nice, where handed an extra task: to look out for burkinis – swimwear that covers the body and head, which is preferred by orthodox Muslim women and other women wanting to avoid exposure to too much sun, but is now banned by a growing number of towns.
Photo by Charles Roffey
The weekend before some tourists taking photographs of women in burkinis were attacked by men of Arabic origin. Cars were burned, eight people were badly injured and five men were arrested on charges of armed assault and face trial next month. After Nice, Cannes followed suit in banning burkinis, then Villeneuve-Loubet, then six more towns. So far four women have been cautioned, liable to fines of €38 each. Cannes police said other women approached by officers had left the beach or changed into bikinis. As someone living in a predominantly Muslim country I find this last part very hard to believe. A woman who is covered in public is highly unlikely to respond to a threat of a €38 fine by taking off her all encompassing burkini before slipping into an Itsy bitsi teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini.
Some police officers admit to an element of what they see as absurdity in adding the new category of “religious offences” to their usual roster of “promiscuity offences” and “public order offences”. But the mood is hardening especially in Nice – scene of the 14 July massacre when a 19-tonne truck was deliberately driven into crowds killing 85 people. France passed a law in 2004 banning religious symbols and clothing, like crosses, Jewish kippas, and headscarves, in public schools. However, all this did was increase the demand for private Muslim schools, pushing even more Muslims out of the mainstream instead of integrating them. A similar law banning the burqa in public spaces was passed in 2010. One quite rightly wonders what would happen if the police came upon a group of Hasidic Jews sitting at a beach side cafe dressed in their characteristic black suits and hats. Also how would they deal with a party of Sikhs all wearing their distinctive turbans or for that matter a Hindu woman in full sari and headscarf having a paddle with her kids? All of these dress codes are rooted in religion and as such should also be banned if the letter of the law is being followed as it is now with a tiny minority of Muslim woman, who have little choice but to wear a burkini if they want to swim.
If you are a regular reader you will already know that I am suspicious of any organised religion, whose overt or covert intolerance of any belief system, other than their own, I regard as little more than sectarian racism. However, beyond the rhetoric and the seemingly endless quest for more followers and finance to push each other’s blinkered agendas, there are many innocents who have little choice. Growing up in a liberal society I was able to make a conscious choice as to whether to pursue or reject the religious path laid out for me by my parents. However, there are many places in the world where this is simply not possible without facing profound consequences. Pressure from the state or perhaps some dictatorship you are born into or because of the egregious penalties, which may be inflicted by your own families are usually enough of a deterrent. Indeed, the nominal penalty for apostasy – the leaving of one’s religion – within some extreme Muslim societies is the threat of, and in some instances actual execution.
Photo by Charles Roffey
In most cases these burkini clad women have little choice in the matter. Add to this the mismatch of dress regulations handed down by male clerics as a result of one interpretation or other of the Koran and a woman’s room for choice in clothing is all but taken away from her. While many woman may be expected to wear a headscarf at the very least and dress Modestly by not exposing anymore flesh other than her face hands and feet no such restrictions are applied to their husbands, sons or brothers. It is now quite common in my quiet corner of Turkey to come across women wearing Burkin’s who, when they are not in the water are perhaps sitting next to their husbands, who are wearing Speedo’s so skimpy and tight they would make any German man, always champions of the flimsiest swim wear – no matter how old or fat they are – , green with envy. I first wrote about this starkly inequitable spectacle about 3 years ago in my piece Barbie in a Headscarf.
It is perhaps not my place to express any strong opinion on the position of woman in Muslim male dominated societies. However, I would have hoped that the people who make up the rules and regulations about what is and is not appropriate on these French town’s beaches at least understand that the wearing of a burkini is not a provocation but rather the only way some women will ever enjoy the delight of swimming in a warm sea. My own, personal thoughts are that these garments can be unsafe if not downright dangerous if the wearer goes too far out or the conditions become choppy – for rarely have I seen a woman not struggling with the metres of fabric used to make one simply to stay afloat. Still that is their choice to make and not the right of some town’s petty bureaucracy to ban it as a knee jerk response to events elsewhere. It doesn’t have to come down to one religion against another – which is how it comes across from most media outlets, and is exactly the message the religious extremists, who claimed the atrocities in France, want to use to boost their own sophisticated internet recruitment. The shame is that there was always a simple solution but somehow it just got lost in the political hyperbole.
Photo by Omar Sasha
Designated safe areas for swimming in heavy swimwear for people of any religious or *none religious persuasion. St Tropez and the Côte d’Azur were once at the forefront of personal freedom of expression with the first official topless bathing and then later by allowing public nudist beaches. So how difficult would it have been to have simply designated a very small area of beach as a safe area to swim for burkini clad women? Perhaps underlining the ‘health and safety’ element of the designation by thoughtfully providing a female life guard just in case a lady got into distress. This way the issue may have got little more than a brief mention on some local news program before being quickly forgotten. Instead the ongoing impression from the worlds media coverage, as the ban works its way along the coast like a contagion, is that it is little more than politically motivated Islamophobia.
* Why the ban has actually made the sale of burkinis go up particularly for woman who simply want to avoid the harmful effects of the sun.