Monday, September 5, 2016

My home-made burkini

Since August 15, 2016 the New York Times and many other English-speaking newspapers have been fascinated with the burkini, a swimsuit worn by some conservative Muslim women which covers the whole body. Some French cities had banned the burkini from their beaches. Soon, the burkini story was all over the international news which condemned the ban as bigoted. The Times was the most persistent of the lot in pursuing the burkini issue; it carried daily articles, editorials, op-eds or letters on the subject. Furthermore, the Times encouraged the French to be more tolerant towards conservative Muslim women’s religious beachwear.

On August 26, the Council of State, a French top administrative court, reversed the ban taken by one city on the grounds that a burkini was not a risk to public order and infringed on personal freedom. To heed the Times’ call for tolerance, I decided to try wearing a burkini. I checked the burkini website to choose a model. It is essentially a wetsuit with a tunic to cover the crotch area and a hood. The Burkini is actually a registered trade mark from an Australian firm and was designed by a Lebanese-born woman there. The range of models is large. Each size comes in two styles: slim or modest fit. To me, the slim fit seems like to follow Islamic modesty guidelines to a lesser degree. They are colorful and made of synthetic fiber. Prices range between US$ 60 (for sale items) and US$ 90. A bargain compared with the price of a bikini, which needs much less material. As I couldn’t get one before the end of summer, I decided to make my own burkini (see photo below). 

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Actually, I was outfitted like many Muslim women in France who swim fully dressed. Since I had a choice, I quickly reverted to western type swimwear as my burkini dragged me under the water. I have tried wet suits and hated them, so I suppose it was not a surprise that I did not like wet burkinis either.

The recent deadly terrorist attacks committed by radical Islamists, many of them French-born, have shaken French self-esteem. People are increasingly concerned and irked by the overt dressing of conservative Muslims which is viewed as both ostentatious and culturally provocative. French people are realistic and know that it is illegal, unfeasible and ridiculous to fine women because they want to swim in the sea fully dressed. However, a majority of people are of the view that the burkini is another sign of goading from a religious and activist community which takes advantage of the freedom provided by a democratic state. After the hijab, the burkini is the new Trojan horse of political Islam to erode the liberal social system of western society. The majority of French people fear a fifth column ready to Islamize secular France.

Since 1905, after having defanged the lay power of the Catholic Church, France has been strictly secular or “laïc”. Twenty first century politicians are not ready to compromise with provocation from an imported religion which compels its faithful to occupy both private and public sphere. The state offensive against Islamic behavior and clothing can be seen as a repeat of the 19th century crusade against the modus operandi of the Catholic Church. French presidents do not swear on the bible, and “in God we trust” is not written on banknotes. Although, during the 20th century France integrated hundreds of thousands of destitute European migrants, the country does not qualify as a country of immigrants. The French now find frustrating that people who choose to live in France, and are often regarded as milking the social security system[1], show little desire to melt in.

It is estimated that 7.7 million Muslims live in metropolitan France, about 11 percent of the population. This is only a rough estimate because, as indicated above the French government does not collect ethnically-based statistics. If a large proportion has blended in, many are living in ethnic ghettos under the influence of conservative imams dispatched from the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia. Recently, the Times[2] quoted a Norwegian terrorist expert, Thomas Hegghammer, who said that the most important effect of Saudi proselytizing might have been to slow the evolution of Islam, blocking its natural accommodation to a diverse and globalized world. “If there was going to be an Islamic reformation in the 20th century, the Saudis probably prevented it by pumping out literalism,” he said. Over the last twenty years In France, the dominant Catholic faith has become more liberal, but Islam has become much more conservative and intolerant, and as a result the cultural gulf between communities just got wider.

The burkini controversy led to lively debates in the French media, political circles and among friends. If the majority agree that the ban is illegal, unfeasible and counterproductive (why to ban the burkini when the hijab is authorized in public places?) the pro and con of the use of the burkini and its explicit religious undertone brought arguments which cut across the left-right ideological division. Two groups were notably disagreeing among themselves: the imams and the feminists! The more open-minded imams support the use of the burkini, for example, to allow mothers to looks after their children on the beach. Others argue that Islamic dressing should be more discreet and conform to the national fashion norms. Conversely, conservative imams condemned the burkini as indecent, stating that both pious men and women should stay away from the perversion of the beach, where people cavort nearly naked.

The divergence of view among French feminists was more subtle. All agree that women should be free to wear whatever they wish, but for left-leaning feminists, the ban is a humiliation and the burkini, albeit an obvious religious garment, give Muslim women a new freedom and empowerment. Other feminists, and I am in this group, regard Muslim societies as blatantly patriarchal, medieval and misogynist, whereby women are second-class citizens and as such, have to conform to male diktats. Muslim men should also dress modestly, but they do not and get away with it. They control women’s bodies, and as a result, women are de facto instrument of a male-dominated religious activism. Western women have fought hard to gain their equality status and are still battling machismo which also aims at “instrumentalizing” women’s bodies. State institutions should help newcomers to attain the same level of social freedom. Muslim women should be taught to decide for themselves. In Iran, dress codes are enforced by the religious police, but it is not the role of the French police.                                                                                                                                                                                   

Autumn will empty French beaches, but the burkini controversy will not die down. The presidential election is taking place in 2017, the concept of laïcité is central to the French state; tempering with it will be political suicide for any candidate. The government is working with the French Council of the Muslim Faith in order to work out solutions and calm the tempers on both sides. Women should be free to choose their wardrobe without having to conform to anyone.

The media’s attention span is notoriously short, and the burkini controversy will fade away. Always in search of stimulating topics, the media in general, and the Times in particular could expose the media bias against female politicians and its negative impact on their empowerment.

[1] May be a perception. Many anti-immigration parties have peddled this information. Hard to know, as racial and ethnic censuses and statistics have been banned by the French government since 1978. For egalitarian sake, it is forbidden to collect data on racial and ethnic groups. [2] Saudis and Extremism: “Both the Arsonists and the Firefighters” by Scott Shane, August 26, 2016.