I’m sure many of you were as shocked as I was to see the photos and read about the beach incident in Nice, France. Photos have been circulating of a woman wearing a burkini on the beach being approached by police and made to partially undress on the basis of the burkini ban enacted by several mayors in France.
France’s top court ultimately ruled against this, saying that mayors don’t have the right to enact such bans. While that ruling is something to applaud, celebration is short-lived because mayors are ignoring the court’s decision.
This is especially hard for me to wrap my head around because I’ve grown up in a country that tries (whether or not it succeeds is a discussion for another time) to emphasize religious tolerance, so something as abrasive as this ban doesn’t make any sense to me. Most Western cultures feel the same (queue the exceptional backlash caused by the bans). But secularism in France means something different than it means in the United States. In France, they emphasize freedom from religion- this means that religion is something that should be practiced in private.
Beyond just the difference in secularism, backers of the ban such as French Prime Minister Manuel Valls are dismissing claims of Islamophobia with the argument that the ban is helping to liberate women living under a patriarchal religious structure. But that theory is failing to recognize that religion itself is something that so many women turn to for liberation, and it’s no one else’s place to decide otherwise.
A ban like this not only further oppresses women who are already being marginalized, but it’s giving the public an excuse to continue tearing into Muslim women unapologetically. This New York Times article offers the perspectives of Muslim women on their day to day struggles, both before and after these bans. Many of these French women have been and continue to be treated as if they do not belong in France; as if being French and being Muslim cannot coincide.
That experience, of being treated poorly simply for being scarfed, is not one that is exclusive to Muslim women in France. Living like that, feeling unwelcome and in a permanent state of unease, is not something I would ever wish on anyone. We need to be trying a LOT harder to make these women feel safe in their own skin, and in their own clothes.