My impulsive, crude inclination is to support the idea, or at least the rationale behind it. I don’t have to travel all the way to Cannes to guess something of what a religious Muslim woman experienced on the beach.
I regularly bathe at a beach predominantly visited by Arabs, a large number of them religious. I don’t deny what I see. I see how the women and girls arrive – usually only in the early evening and often with some supervising escort – wrapped from head to toe. Some of them are still children. They sit on the sand in the July-August heat, when every living being wants to get rid of every irksome additional fabric clinging to the skin. The men don’t strip completely either, but at least they’re allowed to stay in undershirts. The women remain covered in heavy, dark fabrics. There’s something outrageous about it.
I especially remember a picture of a father or a husband, I don’t know which, leading four young women in black, completely covered, into the water. I stood on the waterfront and looked at them. He asked me to walk on and not to look. The modesty guard is that watchful.
It’s a difficult sight if, like me, the struggle for women’s rights and freedom is in your blood. Those who hold people more important than “humanity” feel the burning physical desire that overcomes every dry liberal theory – the desire that every woman be free to dip in the sea or do anything else, without limitations, covers and supervisors.
But watching the French enforcement of the ban on the full-body bathing suit burkini – sometimes, as Muslim women who use that opaque swimwear, to the crowd’s rejoicing cries and racist comments – was simply nauseating and the nausea is even stronger than the urge described earlier.
The sensible words of burkini designer Aheda Zanetti, who was asked to comment on the photographed incident on the Nice beach, where policemen forced a woman to take off her burkini, penetrate both one’s head and heart. She said, “When I invented the burkini in early 2004, it was to give women freedom, not to take it away. So who is better, the Taliban or French politicians?” (The Guardian, Wednesday).
The French law is repulsive not only for the way in which it is enforced. Its sin can be detected in the rationale it uses – public fear of traditional dress following the terror wave in the country. That is, the lawmakers and court that approved the law are not interested in what’s good for women at all. They want to assuage the primordial, racist urges that the fear arouses. There’s no freedom or liberty or fraternity here, but sloppily handled hysteria and the institutionalization of popular racism.
Continuing what Zanetti said, it’s really hard to decide who is more barbarous – those who deny women air and sun, or those who, to calm themselves, criminally generalize and coerce others to change their customs.
A religious student of mine once explained to me why she supported the ban on women singing in public, an act that seems to me extremely oppressive. She spoke about the rules of intimacy between men and women in religious society and of community customs. I wasn’t convinced by her arguments, but understood that this was her free, authentic will – even if the values are alien to me, and which I see as the internalization of ongoing oppression or poor education.
Now the broad-minded, educated, secular person who was raised on enlightenment and rationalism should look in the mirror and ask himself honestly: Are all his ideas, customs, choices and desires a private, unique invention that reflects his wishes accurately, or are some of them a natural adoption of his own family’s values, which someone else may see as complete nonsense, or at least as a peculiar eccentricity?
“The burkini,” says Zanetti, “was intended to integrate and bring people together. To give them the freedom of choice to wear something modest if they choose to be modest for whatever reason they need to be modest for. It should be happy and positive. It is turning something meant to give women the freedom of participating in health and fitness into a negative thing.”
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