Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve definitely heard countless opinions and facts about the Burkini, and you probably already have a strong opinion about it- informed or misinformed. I’m not here to enter an endless argument about it with you. These are just my comments.
First let’s talk about the burkini not as a symbol- as it has been portrayed in French media and politics- but for what it is, a swim suit. Quickly defined, the burkini is a bathing suit allowing people to swim in pools or beaches without exposing their bodies to the sun or others. If this description already makes your blood boil, I’d ask you to hold it off just a little bit, I’ve only described the wetsuit part of the burkini. What makes the burkini so ‘inflammatory’ are these three facts that accompany it: 1. It includes a headscarf portion to the wetsuit 2. It is worn by women 3. It is Predominantly worn by muslim women. And now you can get angry.
Hopefully you’re not actually angry because you’ve realised how foolish you’d look if you were. If you’re angry then either you hate wetsuits, or you hate headscarfs, or you hate women, or you hate muslims, or a combination of all, or a few, of those elements.
Now the real deal. Why do a few muslim women wear it?
This question is what’s lacking in political debates. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls called on the burkini as an “ expression of a political project, a counter-society, based notably on the enslavement of women.”
That is just great. Another man in power telling women what’s empowering and what’s oppressing them.
Aside from this patriarchal, regressive and sexist comment, I am interested in looking at the term “counter-society”, which is at the core of this debate. What is the society Monsieur Valls is talking about? And, is that really why these women are wearing burkinis?
France, as we are all constantly reminded of, is the cradle of human rights. The French always had much pride in their laïcité; a term they’re so proud of only someone with a French keyboard can spell it. For those who don’t know anything about France, laïcité represents the separation of religion from Government and constitutes the first article of the constitution. In english it can be translated into secularism. Burkinis are against France’s secularism according to Monsieur Valls and many other French people. It’s seen as a provocation and an affront to laïcité.
There are many problems with this idea and also many consequences.
First, laïcité only applies to the government. French people themselves are not secular and they shouldn’t be. Everyone can practice and show their faith freely. For France and it’s laïcité, the problem becomes when a religious symbol turns into a national identity. In this case, it’s burkinis but before it was niqabs and burqas, and headscarfs, but also christian crosses or jewish symbols. But France quickly needs to understand that a national identity doesn’t have to be homogenous. When France was more uniformly Christian, secularism was easy to enforce but now France has a muslim population of eight to eleven percent. Islam has a different cultural background and ideology than the Christianity France became secular from, so things can’t work the same way anymore; they need to adapt. France needs to understand that a diverse national identity can have many benefits, the biggest one being a defence against radicalizations, something France really needs. Instead, the current policy ostracizes and discriminates against muslim citizens making them easier preys to the bloodthirsty ISIS recruiters.
Secondly, this whole discussion is creating an amalgam that an islamic symbol is a terrorist symbol. It’s disseminating fear and misinformation about islam and the misnomer islamic terrorism. Don’t get me wrong, French people aren’t inherently racist, my experience growing up there can testify to that, but people are scared and the politicians are feeding off of that fear for political gain, as elections are coming up. In turn this fear is rejecting muslim identities, marginalising those citizens and turning neighbor against neighbor. These muslims are finding it harder to make themselves and their identities known. Is this why women are wearing burkinis?
Not directly but it could factor into the decision.
Muslim women are wearing burkinis in order to participate in activities such as swimming and going to the beach while still upholding their cultural and religious norms and beliefs. If anything they are finding ways to integrate into society without having to give up their identity. Notice that not all muslim women wear burkinis but also not all muslim women have the same cultural upbringing and identity in islam. Yes, burkinis are a symbol but not of divide like the media and government are portraying, but of integrity and islamic modernity. Burkinis are an adaptation of other values into French culture something France is readily trying to discourage. Burkinis are not a religious stance, or an affront to French culture, but on the contrary, it is a manifestation of understanding and a willingness of become a part of the society. What France is doing with the ever-growing laws of unhealthy secularism, is telling muslims they can’t be French if they’re muslim. Unfortunately I don’t have time to talk about the obvious colonialist tendencies here too but I’ll leave that for another day and time.
So here’s my message to France and its people. Put your bigotry aside and embrace positive change. Understand difference and don’t be scared of diversity. In this day and age, pluralism is the only way forward. Fittingly perhaps, here is one of my favorite quotes of muslim origin to end this article:
“A lot of different flowers make a bouquet”
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