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Oppose the burqini ban, but don't call it liberation Open in fullscreen

Farhad Mirza

Oppose the burqini ban, but don't call it liberation

The job of any liberal society is to create choices for its citizens [Getty]

Date of publication: 26 August, 2016

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Comment: The notion that a woman is only free when she strips off, is as problematic the one that states she is free when she covers herself, writes Farhad Mirza

It makes me uncomfortable to comment on an issue that primarily effects women, especially when so many have an intimate knowledge of how patriarchy inscribes its rules on the bodies of women, and yet are never invited to talk about it when the discussion becomes necessary.

However, the ban on the burqini - or the combination of a headscarf, tunic and leggings worn together as a wetsuit, and preferred as beachwear by some Muslim women in France - is such an offensive piece of legislation, that it demands a response from all of us, regardless of our gender and religion. Many women have written their own powerful and poignant responses, including one from the designer of the burqini, and I sincerely hope that this piece will add to the existing debate rather than hijacking it.

Burqini is a misleading name for a garment that does not involve a face veil. Regardless, it has enabled many Muslim women to access public spaces that were previously off-limits, and the ban could reverse this.

The ban is clearly an overreach that lacks the nuance of the debate around the veil, and is bound to expose the racist substance of the French rhetoric on equality and liberty. Implemented as part of wider legislation that seeks to ban "ostentatious" religious symbols in public, the decree has been criticised by various commentators for its fixation on the way Muslim women choose to dress. Critics argue that the legislation unfairly links Muslim women to terrorism, forcing them to unclothe themselves in order to prove their disdain for IS.

The ban on the burqini is such an offensive piece of legislation, that it demands a response from all of us

Thierry Migoule, head of municipal services in Cannes, said the town wanted to ban "ostentatious clothing that shows an allegiance to terrorist movements which are at war with us". By no standard of reason or logic does this ban live up to the claim that it seeks to liberate Muslim women from what former French President Nicolas Sarkozy describes as the "prison of fabric".

By forcibly unclothing Muslim women, the ban not only humiliates them and stirs the painful memory of colonialism (in the 50s, French colonisers transferred more than two million Algerians from their villages in the mountains to internment camps and forced the women were to remove their veils) but it also serves a similar function as the full face veil – in the sense that it aims to remove Muslim women from public areas, shames them, makes them simultaneously invisible and hyper-visible.

This raises an ontological question about the mutable nature of the things we wish to remove from our analytical view. Banning the burqini gives fresh meaning to its donning and when Muslim women re-appropriate it as a symbol of political resistance, it ceases to function as a religious symbol and instead starts to perform the function of a political prop.

The legislation unfairly links Muslim women to terrorism, forcing them to unclothe themselves in order to prove their disdain for IS

Photos posted online a few days ago, show French police ordering a Muslim woman to remove her burqini, before issuing her a fine. According to eye witnesses, people on the beach told her to "go home", as her daughter cried by her side. Nicholas Sarkozy, has labeled the swim suit "a provocation" - a blunt reminder that the henchmen of liberal feminism are yet to travel far from the ugly notion that the way a woman chooses to dress determines the legitimacy of the force a man uses against her.

Once again, the bodies of Muslim women have been turned into the ideological battlefield on which France wishes to demonstrate its cultural dominance. My fingers hesitate as I type this, because it sounds like a sentence out of the post-colonial, terrorist propaganda book. But the truth is that it is laws like these that allow extremists to turn the debate in their favour.

On a tactical level, laws like these push a narrative that taints the perception of those to whom we recommend our values. It corrupts the case for peace, it degrades our commitment to plurality. And given the problems facing France at the moment, this cannot and must not be allowed.   

However, this does not mean that we have to exercise tolerance as cultural relativists and fail to contest the questionable processes through which certain patriarchal notions are normalised in the lives of Muslim women.

It is laws like these that allow extremists to turn the debate in their favour

The notion that a woman is only free when she takes off her clothes is as problematic the one that states that she is free when she covers herself at a beach, and it underscores the need to discuss the limits of personal agency.

The burqini ought to be part of the same debate as other items of clothing that are imposed upon women, either directly - via legislation - or through the active production of prescribed gender roles. This includes Barbie dolls, high heels and hand bags. We don't ban these items in the name of feminism, and rightly so, but their social and psychological impact is the subject of feminist debates.

Our tolerance must not muffle such discussions on the politics of fashion. Opposing the ban is the only reasonable and conscientious choice, but it must be balanced by a similar awareness about the painful reality faced by those Muslim women for whom the face veil or burqa is not a choice.

The job of any liberal society is to create choices for its citizens, so they may be able to govern the personal aspects of their lives according to their own will. By exercising "tolerance", simply for the sake of exercising tolerance, we risk shutting out voices of Muslim women for whom the burqini is both an uncomfortable item of clothing and an extension of challenges faced by some Muslim women in the private realm.


Farhad Mirza is a freelance journalist, writer and researcher. He writes for various publications about social justice, migration and urban culture. Follow him on Twitter: @FarhadMirza01

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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