Joan Wallach Scott misinterprets the French burkini ban

Joan Wallach Scott, a social scientist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, sees France’s approbation of revealing swimwear, as well as the current burkini bans, as products of ideas going back to the French Revolution of 1789.

I believe that Scott misses the point. Women in France can cover as much as they want because France is a free country. They can also cover while being on the beach. The problem is that religion has entered the game while at the time of the French Revolution “covering and religion” was no issue. The problem today is not the covering but the reasons why those women cover, and that women can make those reasons explicit through a particular choice of symbols.

Apart from that, “sexual difference” remains much more important in Islam than in French or Western culture. In Islam women have to cover but remain clearly recognizable as women. In Western culture this is not the case. Short hair for women, men’s suits, etc. are accepted since many years but impossible in traditional Islamic culture.

Here are extracts from an interview with Scott in the New York Times

“What you have in French republicanism is a conflict between a commitment to equality and the notion that sexual difference is a natural difference which explains why there can’t be equality between women and men,” she said.

The French believe it is necessary to show the difference between men and women physically even while proclaiming their equality, Ms. Scott said.

The painter Eugène Delacroix depicted “Liberty” as a bare-breasted woman leading the righteous French. Sculptures and reliefs of a bare-breasted or semi-bare-breasted Marianne, a French symbol of the revolution and liberty, can still be found on government documents, buildings and postal stamps. The very depiction of women reflects how the sexes differ.

“Then on the other side you have Muslim society saying that sex and sexual difference is a problem, and women, whether submitting or not, are covered. So in a sense they are exposing the contradiction in French society, and that’s intolerable,” Ms. Scott said. “It becomes a commentary on the French need to have women uncovered.”

Indeed, the deputy mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, who is a political power broker on the Côte d’Azur, has repeatedly referred to the covering of women on the beach — whether in a burkini or a large T-shirt, pants and hijab — as a “provocation,” suggesting a challenge to the French order.