French Burkini Ban Reversed

Note: This story originally appeared on my blog on August 27, 2016.

It seems that the French have come to their senses. Yesterday, a France’s highest court overruled the mayor of one town who enacted a ban on the so-called burkini, a full coverage bathing suit complete with head covering that allowed Muslim women to enjoy the beach while complying with their religion’s requirement for modest dress.

I’m glad. The burkini ban was nonsensical, the arguments used to justify it ridiculous on their faces. (Exactly how could a burkini, a clothing item, contaminate an ocean to the point where the water was “unhygienic?” For that matter, why would French officials even claim that ocean water was clean in the first place?)

But many people who spoke out against, or even for, the burkini ban seemed to have missed the point altogether. While those on the left discussed the issue from a religious freedom standpoint and those on the right raised the spectre of Islamist terrorism, they seemed to have glossed over the fact that, once again, (almost exclusively) male authority figures deigned to tell adult women what they could and could not wear in public. They also seemed not to have realized that when one group of men in one society tries to impose its cultural values on another group of people, they almost always start off by telling women what they can and cannot wear.

A few examples from history bear this out. Ancient Athenians, who extended few legal rights and privileges to adult women, were scandalized by the relative freedom of the women of neighboring Sparta — and the revealing clothes that Spartan women wore. European women who served as missionaries in colonial Asia and Africa often wore excessive clothing as a sign of modesty and often pressured the indigenous women in those areas into adopting their mode of dress. Even Malcolm X weighed in on the issue of appropriate feminine dress by saying that “…any country’s moral strength, or its moral weakness, is quickly measurable by the street attire and attitude of its women — especially its young women.”

While the Muslim women of France are mostly likely going to prevail in the Battle of the Burkini, it will only be a matter of time before some other men decide to use the little (or large) scraps of clothing that women wear (or don’t wear) to advance their particular political agenda.