The relationship between France and Islam has long been fraught. Where other countries celebrate multiculturalism, France historically prefers assimilation.
Stories like those of girls being restricted from wearing skirts that are too long have often made worldwide news, but the burkini ban has sparked international outcry like no other.
Activists across the world have declared the hijab, burqa, and other forms of Muslim dress to be misogynistic. They’ve declared that Muslim men force their women to dress this way. They’ve declared that Islam itself is inherently sexist. The burkini ban shows that these statements are not as well-intentioned as they seem, that these activists and politicians may have ulterior motives or unaddressed bias.
It doesn’t just apply to the burkini, either. During the Olympics, the internet made much of a match of beach volleyball between Germany and Egypt, where the German women wore bikinis and the Egyptians wore leggings, long sleeved tops, and a hijab. Many used it as evidence of Muslim oppression, but it was only in 2012 that women were no longer required to compete in bikinis in the sport while men wore shorts and a tank top, so the criticism seems more than a little hypocritical.
In fact, many critics have pointed out that removing the freedom of women to choose what they wear goes both ways. You cannot (falsely) declare Islam to be sexist for its modest dress and then limit the choices of women to a different style of dress. Muslim women must be allowed the choice to dress modestly, to wear the hijab, burqa, or niqab – and that includes on the beach. The creator of the burkini stated that she created it in order to give women freedom, rather than take it away.
Additionally, many have pointed out that the burkini is little different from a wetsuit and others still have pointed out that nuns are allowed to wear their habits in every environment. So though it might appear as though this is a feminist issue, an issue of the state controlling women’s bodies, the line is a little more blurred than that.
Across the world, Muslims are blamed for terrorist attacks almost by default. The uninformed point fingers, people like Donald Trump imply that Muslims are protecting the terrorists in their midst. That the Islamophobia in the world has reached a point where in a country as powerful, as respected, as France, women could be forced at gunpoint to remove their religious garments is unacceptable.
The only women being targeted by this policy are Muslim women. Muslim women already face racism, islamophobia, and misogyny in the western world, and further limiting their freedom will only add to the pain in their communities.
Thankfully, the highest administrative court in France has suspended the ban, but the message the ban sent will linger, and there is evidence that most French people supported it.
This culture of Islamophobia in France will not prevent terrorist attacks or help people heal in the aftermath. All it does is lead to the alienation of French Muslims, the very same alienation that groups like ISIS rely on in order to recruit.
The burkini ban sent a message that Muslims, particularly Muslim women, were not entitled to the same freedom that everyone else was in France. It sent a message that France’s state secularism means Islamophobia.
Suspending the burkini ban was the first step, but there’s a lot more Islamophobia in French culture and other areas in the west that needs to be dealt with.