Since several French mayors decided to ban from their beaches the "burkini", or full-body bathing suit, worn by some conservative Muslim women, a lot of criticism of French restrictions on women's liberties has resurfaced. Just as with the passage of a law forbidding face coverings in public, effectively banning the burka (complete covering of the body, including the eyes) or niqab (covering all but the eyes) in public spaces, commentators have scorned the ban as men behaving badly and forcing women to conform to their ideals.
Kathleen Parker, writing in the Washington Post, complained that "liberté ought to mean wearing a burkini on the beach -- or a thong if you must." She points out that men have long legislated what women must wear in public. She and other commentators dismiss French feminists who point out that it is indeed men who insist women wear these garments.
But the question of women's rights misses the point, at least in the burkini controversy. It was after a fight broke out on a beach in Sisco, Corsica, between locals apparently objecting to women overtly wearing conservative Muslim clothing, and their defenders. In fact, as it turns out, the bagarre was between three North African brothers who wanted to "privatize" the beach so that the women in question could not be photographed, and locals who objected to such action on a public beach. The burkini was not the root of the issue, but was the flashpoint.
Nevertheless, with nerves frayed for French people, Muslims included, after several recent terrorist attacks, other mayors decided to head off controversy and ban the highly visible symbol. Thus this particular ban was to forestall violence, not suppress the rights of women to wear what they want.
Concerning the 2010 ban on covering one's face, the law is rarely enforced, which also enrages some people, who see burkas or niqabs as provocation. Indeed, there is reason to be concerned that women are forced to wear these if they go out, just as they must be accompanied by a male relative when they go out in public. Moreover, it has been illegal in France since the 1870s to cover one's face in public (except for occasional costumes). Anyone getting an identification card or passport in the country has to abide by strict rules for photos: no uniforms, head coverings, or even smiles. Just as privacy is jealously guarded here, one's public identity cannot be dissimulated.
So in both cases, banning these garments is not a flagrant case of sexism nor conformity to feminist strictures. The real question is, can a conservative Muslim exercise the right to worship as they choose, in public, despite local customs and laws?
The fact is that, like the yarmulkes, earlocks and round hats and beards for some Jews, none of the dress -- burkas, niqabs, chadors and headscarves for women, beards, taqiyah caps, qamis and djellabas for men -- is required by the religion. Men covering their heads out of respect for the Almighty is traditional among Jews, Muslims, and Christians. The Qur'an, like the Bible, insists only that women dress modestly. The meaning of "modest" is quite fluid, of course. For millennia, Middle Eastern women have covered their hair in public, saving the sight of their long locks for their husbands. But this is all purely traditional, not legally required of the faithful.
Furthermore, requiring restrictive clothing and repressing the rights of women today are marks of variants of Sunni Islam that are conservative, if not downright fundamentalist. The spread of Salafism and Wahhabism, stoked by gushers of oil money, is at the root of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group. Which is to say the terror now striking the West. Furthermore, a similarly conservative version of Shi'a Islam, developed under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, now rules Iran, also a source of funding terror. That some Sunni and Shi'a are basically at war has only made the present situation even more complex, ambiguous, and murderous.
I am not exonerating the Western powers, including France and the United States, whose imperialist adventures in the Middle East vastly fueled the growth of these fundamentalisms. Nevertheless, here we are now, trying to hold things together so that people can continue to follow their consciences and worship (or not) the way they wish.
That raises other issues in France that foreigners do not comment upon, such as insistence by some that girls swim separately (in burkinis) from boys in public schools, and that pork never be served in cafeteria, even when an equivalent meal is prepared. Furthermore, all meat must be slaughtered halal, not just kosher. The vast majority of French Muslims are proud to be French, and live quite peacefully with everyone else. However, such pressure from what is actually a small fringe of people becomes magnified in the present climate.
Striking a balance between the legitimate rights of people to the free exercise of religion and maintaining public order has also been a recurrent issue in American life and history, and it certainly is now, as well. That the French struggle with it more or less well is a tribute to the nation's strong desire to maintain liberté, égalité, and fraternité, despite the hundreds of people killed by terrorists in recent months.