Kate Maltby

France’s burkini ban was an own goal for secularism

France's burkini ban was an own goal for secularism
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I’ve always hated the beach. The water? Great. The sunshine? Terrible. It starts with the hot trek across the sands to find a square of free ground – loaded up with factor 60, several books, a comedy floppy hat, two towels, three bottles of water and the rusty family parasol. Then there’s the bodily anxiety. Find me a woman who doesn’t fret about her body on the beach, and I’ll find you a liar.

Just over a year ago, I wrote a post for The Spectator about my own fraught history with my body on the beach. I still don’t understand how it ever became acceptable to wear an itsy bitsy bikini around one’s dad. And even in a one-piece, if I don’t draw attention to my thickening waist, my mother will. For a single beach holiday, I spend a year trawling for swimmable cover-ups and loose T-shirts. If the burkini didn’t come with an Islamic headscarf – and if this week’s series of lawsuits hadn’t made it quite such a loaded statement– I’d be the first out to the shops to stock up.

But last time I wrote about bodies and bikinis, I didn’t do so against the spectre of France’s burkini ban, finally struck down this afternoon by the Conseil d’Etat in Paris (although Nicolas Sarkozy, launching his latest campaign for President, still promises to introduce it). I was critiquing the new excuses for Islamic dress codes, a rising rhetoric that places the veil and the bikini in direct opposition. It’s an old and false dichotomy, an alternative take on the Madonna and the whore. We’ve seen plenty more of it this summer. It plays well not just with grumpy Imams, but picture editors and tabloid hacks.

An image of two Olympic volleyball players flashed around the world last month: the Egyptian in sport-friendly hijab and leggings, the German in skin-tight bikini.  If you think either’s a great ideal, think again. Search for the name of the German player, Kira Walkenhorst, and you’ll soon find fratboy sites offering 'the hottest pictures of the German Beach Volley Ball team' (no doubt, every Egyptian father’s worst fear when his daughter announces she’s off to become a volleyball star). Meanwhile, the Muslim journalism Iram Ramzan, amongst others, has detailed the litany of body shaming tropes that lie behind mainstream defences of veiling. In some of the popular memes Ramzan traces, 'those who don’t wear a headscarf are likened to uncovered lollipops which have flies buzzing around them'. This is the language that religious leaders have always used to police women’s dress – be that officious Sunni conservatives, or their close – unacknowledged – cousins, the Jewish Haredim. Both Hefner’s Playboy and Iran’s Press TV encourage us to dress with male eyes – not comfort – at the forefront of our minds.

Flick through Islamic responses to France’s ill-thought burkini-ban, and it’s clear this will only get worse. The staggering tyranny of men with batons ordering a woman to remove her clothes should be apparent to anyone – it doesn’t matter if you intellectually disagree with the theology of the headscarf, it is still an obscene violation. Beaches are the site of enough anxiety already. No woman should be ordered to strip by an officer of the state.

So this is a serious own goal by supposed secularists. 'If your feminism says I should dress in a way that makes me uncomfortable, but satisfies the heterosexual male gaze, I ain't buying it,' read one popular tweet by an American hijabi this week. It's a classic appropriation of feminist language for reactionary causes: those of us who criticise the hijab would argue that it also allows the male gaze to set the rules for public spaces. But when women are ordered into skimpier clothing on French beaches – one notorious photograph now doing the rounds shows a woman being ordered to remove not merely a headscarf but a tunic and leggings – it's going to be much harder to argue that a third way is possible.

In France, the hypocrisy is particularly visible. Last year, when the Saudi king visited the Riviera, it was requested that unveiled French policewomen be kept out of his sight. Some accusations that France gives the Catholic Church a pass are misplaced – as the academic John Bowen points out, the state banned nuns from state education a hundred years before it banned headscarves. But looking at King Salman’s holiday snaps, it looks awfully like laïcité only applies to the powerless.

Across the West, Muslim women have become the target for our anxieties about Islam’s demographic rise and internal civil war. The veil makes them visible – and Islamic dress codes impose that burden entirely unequally. It’s true that most orthodox readings prescribe loose, long coverings for men as well as women – and that’s before we even start on the politics of beard length - but far fewer Muslim men observe them, especially in the West. (One complication is that women are usually more observant than men across all religions). But Muslim women are facing disproportionate political pressure both from within their own communities and beyond. One Muslim friend has been considering removing her hijab for a year; since the pictures from France, she’s ruled it out.

Conservatives know that most personal customs, like dress, are messy mixes of tradition and circumstance. Force people to rationalise their habits and you might not like the ideology that fills the vacuum. Opposing ham-fisted government intervention is easy for liberals; talking frankly about Islamic conservatism is harder. France’s brief experiment with a burkini ban has made that conversation infinitely more difficult.

Written byKate Maltby

Kate Maltby writes about the intersection of culture, politics and history. She is a theatre critic for The Times and is conducting academic research on the intellectual life of Elizabeth I.