France's burkini ban is Taliban-style moral policing, with a twist

While the country is disrobing women in the name of liberation, its 'Asian counterpart' forced them to cover up.

 |  7-minute read |   25-08-2016
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Two sets of events in the past fortnight, though unrelated, are examples of the two extremes the debate on the veil - the head cover that many practising Muslim women wear - has taken in the West.

The Rio Olympics will go down in history as the first when relaxed rules on dressing allowed several Muslim women athletes to participate in the most prestigious sporting event clad in a hijab or headscarf.

In the Olympics, many such women did not leave the sports lovers disappointed and sent a clear message that their religious belief or dress will in no way become a hurdle in their game.

Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first Muslim American to participate in the Olympics in a headscarf, also became the first hijabi to win a (bronze) medal. Later, Iranian Taekwondo star Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin became the first female from her country to win a (bronze) medal.

Female athletes from conservative Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan, as well as from Egypt and some other countries, also participated in the biggest sporting event practically covered from head to toe.

In terms of photos, perfect was the viral image of the Egyptian and German women's beach volleyball preliminary match, one team in a bikini and the other in a burkini, a kind of swimwear popular among Muslim women in the West as it covers most of the body, including the head.

Across the Atlantic, however, 15 towns in France have banned the burkini, and even fined a woman who sought to defy the ban.

On Tuesday, the French police armed with batons and pepper spray forced a Muslim woman wearing a burkini on a beach in Nice to strip off. These women have been accused by the police of not "respecting good morals and secularism" for wearing leggings and putting scarves, as if the head cover is against western culture.

France was also the first European country to ban the full face veil in 2011. Some European countries have since followed suit or are mulling a ban. It would be interesting to note, though, that France is not the first country to ban the veil in public places.

fencer-embed_082516064720.jpg Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first Muslim American to participate in the Olympics in a headscarf, also became the first hijabi to win a bronze.  

In the 1920s, Shah Amanullah Khan of Afghanistan sought to ban the veil in public, besides encouraging women's education and banning forced marriage, etc, which backfired. Similarly, modern Turkey had banned religion-based clothing, something that has been taken up under AKP rule now.

While one may still argue with some valid reasons on complete coverage of face in public at a time when terror attacks are becoming endemic; one wonders how covering the head or wearing long-sleeved shirts and leggings made of swimsuit material can be a security threat, or "likely to create risks to public order", as the ordinance in Cannes claims.

Listen to the Prime Minister of France, Manuel Valls, and you will know immediately that the ban is nothing but part of growing Islamophobia, as also of the old supremacist trope of "civilising mission". Supporting the prohibitions, he said last week that the burkini is nothing but "the enslavement of women".

Farcical as it may appear, a democratic government and its police are forcing women to disrobe in the name of liberating and empowering them. By forcing women to undress, the police are indulging in their own version of moral policing that the West has generally derided in countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia or in Afghanistan under the Taliban - the only difference being that their Asian counterparts forced the women to cover up.

The debate on the veil, particularly among non-Muslims and liberal Muslims, has often been polarised. While one group supports women's freedom to choose, the other vehemently opposes it, calling it a manifestation of the subjugation of women.

Hijab is an emblem of subjugation?

No doubt in the name of religion and culture women are forced, at worst, and conditioned to cover themselves from head to toe, often including the face, in most conservative Muslim societies.

But to argue that because women in, say Saudi Arabia or Iran, are forced to cover, even an American fencer who participates in the Olympics or someone living in western countries is oppressed or subjugated, is nothing but prejudiced stereotyping, in which the hijab is seen as a sign of backwardness, the veil as a cage, and the burkini as enslavement.

In fact, as women are being forced to pull off the burkini, which anyway would not clear the conservative tests of many clerics, it is worth pointing out that no one would have any problem with Christian nuns visiting a beach in their trademark headscarves.

Also read: Why is France hounding women for wearing burkinis?

Western public opinion in general and French in particular does not appear sensitive to the changes transpiring in immigrant communities. Dress holds different meanings for different people. Dress conventions, like any other conventions, are never static.

The way the feminist movement evolved in the west, the very concept of empowerment of women is associated with "freedom to uncover", argues Natasha Walter, director of Women for Refugee Women, and author of Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism.

For most in the West - and by extension in most part of the world - it is thus hard to understand a journey of self-determination for women that does not take the same trajectory and does not necessarily associate being bareheaded in public with freedom, she concludes.

While France follows the assimilation model towards immigrants, though unsuccessfully, several countries, including Canada and England, instead prefer multiculturalism.

Fifteen years after the London Metropolitan Police optionally allowed hijab for its officers, Scotland has approved the hijab as part of optional official uniform to boost the number of Muslim women part of the force. In Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has changed its uniform policy to allow Muslim officers to wear the hijab to "better reflect the diversity" of that country.

Can the hijab be liberating?

The veil can be a strategy of resistance and liberation, rather than an emblem of submission, as often the women who choose to wear a burqa or burkini are carving out their private space within a public space, and ensuring greater mobility in a society that does not welcome women's participation outside of delineated boundaries.

Also read: Will the next Islamic terror attack push France to the brink of civil war?

If not for the burkini, the Iranian, Egyptian, Saudi and Afghan athletes might not have been able to participate in the Olympics. Back home in India, I found many first-generation girls or those from religiously conservative families at Jamia Millia Islamia who might not have been able to study there, had it not been for the hijab.

"Modest fashion" has hence developed into an important segment of the Muslim fashion industry. Early this year, high-end designer brand Dolce & Gabanna launched its own "modest-wear" range, following the likes of Tommy Hilfiger and Oscar de la Renta, besides a number of other online stores and boutiques spread across the Muslim world.

Slowly but steadily, the hijab is meeting high street fashion, even in India, as young girls and women while dressing "modestly" get to experiment with latest fashion trends.

Clash of civilisations

In Islam, women are seen as mohsana or "fortress against the devil" and the woman, her body in particular, becomes the preserver of culture and identity. While custodians of Islamic traditions and culture are hell bent on forcibly covering them, the "white man's burden" appears to be in undressing them in the name of liberation and empowerment.

She is hence reduced to mere object, an agent without any feelings or mental capability to have free will; and upon whose body the purported battle in the "clash of civilisation" is being fought in the name of modernity, morality, freedom and supremacy.

A woman may participate in the Olympics and even win medals; she may work in the police or as a human rights activist, journalist or lawyer, professor or an entrepreneur, but the moment she is spotted in a hijab, according to our liberal intolerant notion of liberty, all her achievements and credentials fall flat and she is seen merely as a subjugated slave.


M Reyaz M Reyaz @journalistreyaz

The writer is a journalist who also shares his knowledge with young minds as an assistant professor of media communication at Aliah University, Kolkata.

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