Why the burqini debate in France is ridiculous

Sunday 11/09/2016

The burqini is a relatively new fashion trend that consists of an outfit made from swimsuit material, and covers the body from head to ankles. As it leaves the face uncovered, it does not conflict with existing French law, which bans face-coverings. The Australian woman who invented the burqini a decade ago, Aheda Zanetti argues that it does not symbolise Islam but leisure and happiness.
The French minister of Fami­lies, Childhood and the Rights of Women — yes, that is Laurence Rossignol’s official and slightly ludicrous title — attacked the burqini as being an “Islamic fashion”, a remark that was most unhelpful in the wake of the barbarous terrorist onslaught France has witnessed in recent months.
Fear of Muslims is on the rise in France but the government to which Rossignol belongs will hardly combat terrorism by embarking Muslim women in the fight.
What does the minister know about the life of Muslim women in today’s France? What does she understand of the diversity of Islam? Does she understand that not all Muslim men and women are not Islamists? Is she simply intent of making a victory for the extreme right-wing National Front more likely in next spring’s presidential election?
What she quite fails to under­stand is that many Western women who wear short skirts and sexy clothes are not half as emancipated as fashion diktats led us to believe. Many of these clothes are designed by men to please men. The glamour look of long-legged, slim creatures is one to which most women cannot aspire — it imprisons them quite as much as hijabs and burqinis do.
To measure the level of emanci­pation of women by the length of the skirts they wear suggests public discourse in France has sunk to new levels. Since when is the extent she denudes her body a tool of a woman’s emancipation?
The law of 1905 that separates church from state in France in no way dictates how a woman should be dressed nor does it oblige her to conform to any code of dress­ing her faith might recommend. Rossignol recently compared women who wear headscarves through choice to American “negroes” who supported slavery. The simply use of such a word by a minister is shocking indeed and suggests an enduring colonial attitude among non-Muslim women who feel, particularly when they are politicians, that they are entitled to dictate to Muslim women what is in their best interest.
In August, a number of mayors, especially on the Côte d’Azur issued decrees banning the use of burqinis — arguing that they “ostentatiously displayed religious affiliation” and could “disrupt public order”.
One official went on the record that wearing a burqini could demonstrate “an allegiance to terrorist movement”. This conjured up the threat of bomb-throwing burqini-clad women in Cannes or Nice, towns noted for their right-wing, racist mayors outbidding one another ahead of next year’s election.
That France should be nervous, especially in the south where a terrorist attack cost 85 dead on July 14th is one thing, to think that banning burqinis would help thwart another terrorist attack is another.
The debate illustrates the capacity of the French political class to tie itself up in knots over a subject of minor importance. That Nicolas Sarkozy, keen to court the votes of National Front electors, should add his voice to those who support a ban is not surprising.
The prime minister, ever eager as the son of a would-be immi­grant would be to appear more French than the French should follow hardly constitutes a surprise — Manuel Valls loves nothing better than bombastic speeches that he hopes will avoid his socialist party haemorrhaging votes next year. With every day that passes he sounds more like Sarkozy who sounds ever more like Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader.
Thus the pendulum swings ever more to the right, despite the reaction of certain ministers such as Najet Vallaud-Belkacem, who begs to differ from her prime minister.
The effect on France’s image abroad is sobering. Such debates invite ridicule. Some foreign correspondents bemoan the decline of public debate in France — that is hardly new.
Albert Camus, Raymond Aron and Claude Levi-Strauss are long gone. With a few sane exceptions, such as Senator Esther Benbassa and the odd minister or journalist, much of public discourse seems to be barking up the same anti- Islam tree, stigmatising a religion and those who practise it, ignoring the many divergent voices and trends across a huge area of the globe.
While it is right to acknowledge that Islam itself and the countries where it is the dominant religion are being wracked by huge contro­versies and bloody mayhem that is usually political or economic rather than religious, the debate about the burqini shows France at its worse and makes its politicians and many of its supposed intellec­tuals look stupid. In no way is it worthy of the country of Voltaire, Hugo and Malraux.