Thanks for the Beaches, Now Return the French Public Schools

Photo Credit: Guia Besana for The New York Times

Suddenly, conversation about modesty clothing became sexy. Muslim women’s swimwear of choice — non-accidently coined a derivative of bikinis, that outfit elusive to women worldwide for reasons ranging from body size to body hair to body health to body shaming to bodily attacks — made #Burkini a thing of our social media news feeds till Friday, when the French administrative court overturned the Burkini ban at the Villeneuve-Loubet beach. However, French politicians’ responses to the decision reminds us their institutionalized intolerance runs over a decade deeper, and hits at the very heart of France’s future: Schools.

Since 2004, when France began undressing Muslim, Sikh, Jewish schoolchildren of any clothing exhibiting “conspicuous religious affiliation,” the silence from usual rights advocates has signaled dangerous consent. The subsequent vindication by the highest court of Human Rights in Europe has been ironical. France’s ‘soft power’ as a land of high culture, deep history and refined taste, has largely protected it from censure for shallow reasoning and crude bigotry.

I loved the summer I spent in a suburb of Paris as a child. This was the one time we accompanied my father to that revered research institute, IHES, where he had been invited almost every summer for more than a decade. He reveled in his research, inhaled lectures by Mathematical giants, romanced topological theorems, and joined us in savoring meals and friendships he knew would last. So, in 2004 he wrote aghast to some of the best minds about the unbelievable ban in their country that forced little children to choose between their heritage and their public education. First, he was deafened by silence. Then, follow-up emails made him wish no explanations had been afforded: This is aimed only at Muslims really. No argument could have turned him off more than this attempted mollification: we encourage you to condone this, the discrimination in Laïcité clothing, since you are a Sikh, not a Muslim. My turbaned father never traveled back to his intellectual haven: a small protest by a man entirely convinced the human heart must always shine brighter than the best human mind.

Ever since 2004, those struggling to protect their romanticism about French intellectualism follow a predictable line of defense.

First, politely: If France is banning all religious symbols, isn’t that leveling the playing field? Shouldn’t minor children be freed of all religious dress, and later choose as adults?

One word summarizes the simple answer to both questions: majoritarianism.

Only when we start believing that the modern dress preferences in Christian culture are the “norm” and “neutral,” can we be hoodwinked into believing the French propaganda.

When children of turban-wearing parents — seldom represented in prevalent media — are not given the experience of wearing a turban because their family is not in the majority, we are further robbing them of an opportunity to choose. Not to mention robbing certain parents of transmitting their heritage, faith, and sense of self to their children.

Second, comes the frustrated: But this ban only applies to the public schools; religious schools are an option for the more religious parents?

“More religious” non-Christian parents, that is. Because the child of even the most adherent of Christian parents does not go to elementary school wearing a nun’s habit (or other “conspicuous” symbols per the French ban, which makes bare-faced, bare-headed, the norm).

The supposition that sending children to school in parochial uniform is an option in fact highlights another oppression inherent in the French ban: classism. Not all parents can pay for private schools. Not all religious minorities have the clout and ability to create religious schools. This proposal thus further chastises the most vulnerable of those already caught in double whammy: wrong faith, wrong race.

Finally, (or again) the predictable chagrin: Muslim girls are expected to wear headscarves, even on hot days in the schoolyard, what about Muslim boys?

There are truly sexist standards in our world. One only has to look at Catholic women wearing uncomfortable stilettos, under legs they spent time, money, and pain ridding of hair before wearing skirt suits that help them look just the right balance of feminine and formal. “Choice” is complicated everywhere. Do women wear bras and shave legs out of choice, or out of being acculturated a certain way? Do certain practices just seem more sexist because we have rationalized our own oppression to our satisfaction?

Make no mistake. Wherever a girl or boy or trans child making a “choice” (as subjectively contested as the word might be) of dress is pressurized out of it, there should be chagrin. But the argument that all is well since our “choice” is not being challenged is deeply insufficient. May the fierce feminist outrage in France continue: whether we have kids or not, whether our kids go to public school or not, whether our kids wear certain clothing or not. France’s considerable soft power in the world demands that we care when it falters, whether we live there or not.

Mallika Kaur is a lawyer and writer who focuses on gender and minority issues in the U.S. and South Asia. She is a lecturer at UC Berkeley School of Law and also regularly consults on gender justice, cultural humility and trauma-informed advocacy.