Burkini Bans are a hot item now on the beaches of Cannes!
Only two weeks after the Olympic games demonstrated an easy pathway to accommodate different attitudes about dress, by permitting the Egyptian volleyball team (and American fencer Ibtihal Muhammed) to compete clothed as they chose, France has tied itself into knots about bathing costumes. Not everyone is liberal this summer.
During the Olympics, Roger Cohen, an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times commented thoughtfully on the distance that exists between the more liberal Western and the more conformist Eastern societies at the Olympic games. But he never envisaged that his civilized dialogue between two women with widely varying attitudes about veiling would turn into a virtual "Affaire Burkini" on French beaches.
During the Olympics, the Mayor of Cannes, citing "security risks" banned women from wearing burkinis, bathing suits that conceal both the body and the head. The technical ordinance adopted requires beach garb to respect "good morals and secularism." Burkinis are out, said the Mayor, because "Beach attire that ostentatiously displays a religious affiliation, while France and places of worship are the target of terrorist acts, is likely to create risks to public order." Now numerous other French towns have joined Cannes.
The French started out playing hard ball and their "police officers are forcing modestly clad Muslim women on the beaches to pay fines, leave or disrobe." This "crack-down" was backed at the highest levels. France's prime minister, Manuel Valls, denounced the little-worn burkini as "a tool of enslavement."
Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, is vying for the position of center right candidate in the 2017 French presidential elections. Sarkozy told Le Figaro magazine that "doing nothing against the burkini would be another retreat for France." He also said: "The full face veil and the burqua are already banned in public spaces."
The Vice-Mayor of Nice, scene of a recent terrorist bombing, but also where one of the worst confrontations with a modestly clad bather took place, argued that anyone who wore a burkini was deliberately trying to provoke the public. "I condemn these unacceptable provocations in the very particular context that our city is familiar with," he said. Apparently the Nice attack -- a terrible event -- meant that the citizens should no longer be reminded that many of their neighbors are Muslims.
Who would have thought that the French political elite would care about enforcing a ban on a swimming suit as being too modest. "Burkini" is a composite word for burqa (head scarf worn by more traditional Muslim women and the bikini.) Muslim identity, assimilation and the burkini made front page news in the New York Times this Thursday.
The French who are the doyens of fashion -- and well known for a laissez faire attitude towards partial nudity -- seem dead set against the burkini.
The French may not know it, but they are being laughed at. A Sikh professor tweeted a comparison of the banned burkini with the utterly accepted wet-suit..
"If you agree, we must enact a #BurkiniBan to keep us safe, than you'll agree that wetsuits definitely #MustBeBanned" Simran Jeet Singh@SikhPro
Human rights activist Ken Roth posted a picture of nuns frolicking in the surf in their habits and wondered if they too, would be banned.
Let's take a minute to assess why this issue of bathing suits or burkinis is suddenly so challenging?
Does it rub against the grain of civility and civilization? Why is dress so significant in our world today? Why is conformity so essential? Can we not be civilized people and yet agree to disagree to cultural norms in different cultures? Isn't the issue really that the French expect immigrants to abandon cultural symbols of difference -- which is why the habits of nuns are OK but burkinis are not?
Why is it so difficult for certain countries to accept cultural differences? In my humble opinion, it makes the world considerably more interesting and intriguing.
It's not about safety -- or morals in any ordinary sense of the word. It's about conformity -- a charge the French would bristle at.
After all the alleged security risk is not the women wearing overly modest bathing suits -- it is bigots on the beach who might attack them. This is taking blaming the victim to new lengths. To make sure that no one took the reference to "secularism" too seriously, (this is Cannes after all) the Mayor initially said he did not mean to ban "the veil, the kippa or the cross." He said that other than the burkini, the only swim garb that might prompt an arrest was an Indian sari, because it could interfere with a life-guard's rescue efforts!
(I invite him to Varanasi, where he can see hundreds of women bathing, and indeed modestly changing their saris, without any apparent risk of drowning.)
But in reality what happened was predictable. Instead of easing the largely non-existent tensions around the burkini, the ban aroused them. When police moved to enforce the ban, crowds gathered. In one location they shouted at the woman, "Go back to where you came from,' and "We are Catholic here."
The French were not all afflicted by this obsession. A Feminist group, Osez Les Feminisme highlighted this issue by saying, "that the anti-burkini enforcement penalized women twice over: for racism and sexism." Osez Les Feminisme said, "Women were being deprived of their rights by their patriarchal" religion but the French government was also forcing them "to live under religious oppression" and contradicting "their fundamental liberties."
And the ban, predictably, upped sales of the burkini, which was created by 49 year old, Aheda Zanetti, a Lebanese Australian inventor. She describes the burkini swimsuit as "freedom, happiness and life style changes -- you can't take that away from a Muslim woman, or any other woman that chooses to wear it," she says. She further explains that the swimsuit was not intended to exclude non-Muslims and was not meant to be a political statement. Ms. Zanetti ends with "I have a strong voice on behalf of women, for freedom of choice."
And on Friday France's highest administrative court threw out the ban as a violation of freedom of religions. The government seemed divided about how to respond. The Interior Minister suggested everyone step back and cool off, but the Prime Minister continued to insist that the burkini was a basic threat to the future of France. Sarkozy continued to call for a national ban.
And meanwhile, I wonder what he would do if someone complained that a topless bathing suit was not reflective of "good morals." Or is exhibitionism now a formal requirement to satisfy French secularism? The French have seemed like heroes as they faced multiple terror attacks. The world has united behind them in solidarity, including many Muslim Prime Ministers and Presidents. Now they are squandering their dignity over a bathing suit. It's sad.