burkini

The so-called burkini

Cinzia Leonard, 3FF intern

After several days of explosive media attention on the #BurkiniBan debate in France this week, the furore reached its climax yesterday when images emerged of three French police men legally forcing a French Muslim woman to remove pieces of clothing while on a beach in Nice.

The social media whirlwind which ensued was dominated by the reactions of those shocked and appalled at the inherent sexism, racism and Islamophobia at play in images which many feel have absolutely no place in any progressive, democratic society, never mind in 21st century Europe.

It seems futile, however, to re-iterate these feelings of condemnation, though they are important. What needs greater investigation is why is this happening, and why now?

The political narrative is primarily suggesting that the ban is simply part of necessary security measures in light of a serious terrorist threat, whilst politicians involved have quoted everything from personal hygiene to affiliations with ISIS. Others are under no illusion that these bans are nothing more than about winning votes in France’s presidential and parliamentary elections next year.

Accommodating difference is certainly the benchmark for any well integrated society, in which minority communities can be French, while also being Muslim.

No answer is likely to be sufficient, but one reason is evident: we are now facing huge difficulties when it comes to not merely tolerating but in accepting difference. This has been made abundantly clear in the language surrounding the argument for security; the measures are said to be to “protect the population” from the “provocation” of ostentatious religious clothing. The language here speaks volumes about a growing attitude, where the freedom from religion seems to be prioritised above the freedom to religion. The law is being used in order to protect us from our own fears, insecurities and assumptions, rather than creating a space to address and correct them.

Accommodating difference is certainly the benchmark for any well integrated society, in which minority communities can be French, while also being Muslim. By supporting bans like this one, however much we may think we are, we are not removing barriers to integration, we are imposing them. Forced assimilation will only make people choose between one identity and another, while promoting an atmosphere of fear, suspicion and distrust.

Forced assimilation will only make people choose between one identity and another, while promoting an atmosphere of fear, suspicion and distrust.

It would be naïve, however, to say that with integration the problems simply disappear. The debate surrounding an organised “burkini-only” day at a waterpark in Marseille, although it received comparatively less media attention, demonstrated just how complex integration can be. While the organisers saw the event as a positive way to “encourage women to join in with the community”, others were enormously critical of a day which they saw as segregating and divisive.

As someone who in the past has attended the local pool during a “women’s only” hour, I saw the proposed day as a similar way to accommodate difference, provide choice and promote a day out to people who otherwise might not feel confident to take part. Certainly, the context of that choice is in need of attention, why it is that certain groups feel they want or need to separate themselves from others is a question which needs asking. But while getting to grips with the context of that choice could take a generation, allowing people to have a separate space where they feel comfortable for now may be one positive step forward.

Nevertheless, the water-park event was banned, alongside the burkini and our struggle with difference played a major part in those decisions. Our differences as men and women, as Europeans, as Muslims and non-Muslims should not mean any one is forced to change or to hide parts of their identity in order to conform to a ‘mainstream’ culture. Strength can lie in our differences as much as in our similarities, if only we allow ourselves to accept them.