Ban the Burkini Ban

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As someone who blogs about freedom of expression I really can’t let the ridiculous burkini controversy in France go by without comment.

Policemen have literally been forcing women to disrobe in public. That is deeply illiberal and wrong.

The arguments for enforcing such a policy do not stand up.

“It is a provocation” says Nicholas Sarkozy.  I respectfully disagree with the former president. Wearing certain clothes or symbols can be an act of defiance, and expression of faith, belief or politics. All of these are things that are to be welcomed and encouraged in a free society. If others see the entirely non-threatening act of wearing a full body swim suit as a provocation then perhaps they should have a thicker skin and be mindful to be less easily provoked. Wearing clothes is a passive act, not an aggressive one.

‘Provocation’ implies that ordinary French people cannot be trusted to keep their shit together when they see a Muslim. Even after the atrocities in Nice, Rouen and Paris, the French can be trusted to tell the difference between militant Islamists, and ordinary Muslims.  Sarkozy’s comments are deeply patronising to the French people and also play into the hands of those who seek to sharpen the divisions in French and European society.  His attitude must be resisted.

But the religion makes the women cover up and so by banning the burkini we are really saving them.

Two wrongs to do not make a right and one does not combat sexist religious dress codes by enforcing dress codes on a national level.  That just places the choice further away from the women affected.  

They should be respecting and integrating with French culture.

First, it’s arguable that Going To The Beach constitutes an essential and unimpeachable aspect of French culture. There will be plenty of French people who loathe the beach.  

But nevertheless, the crucial point is this: aren’t the Muslim women who visit the beach trying to integrate with that culture? Many immigrant communities are criticised for keeping to themselves and not mixing with the mainstream… but in bathing side-by-side with people in regular bikinis, these women are doing exactly the kind of mixing and integration that we would otherwise applaud. Would the mayor of Nice prefer these women stay in their ghettos?  Enforcing these dress codes seems to be a a way of achieving exactly that: ethnic cleansing by way of the fashion police.

What is so tragic in all of this is that French officials are behaving in exactly the way that the terrorists hoped they might. Integration is reversed.

It could never happen in the UK, right?

I would like to think that this kind of enforcement would never be contemplated in the UK… but there have been cases where the law has permitted the authorities to tell women what to wear. In a legal battle that went all the way to the House of Lords, Shabina Begum was told that her school did not act unlawfully when it told her she could not wear a Jilbab.  A school with a uniform policy is different to a public beach but I do think the school (and the House of Lords ruling) were wrong. If an educational establishment is to have a uniform policy then that policy must take into account the cultural practices and faiths of its pupils.  You would not force boys to wear dresses or Christian girls to wear hijabs, so their should be conservative Muslim options written into the school dress code.

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