One of the themes of summer was the controversy over beachwear and in particular the attempts by French local authorities (since quashed by the courts) to outlaw Burkinis: distinctive, modest clothing worn by Muslim women.
My first reactions were that this was silly season nonsense. Then my liberalism kicked in: why shouldn’t these women wear what they like? Then my British-ness asserted itself: we don’t have such arguments in the UK, do we? and why are those women I saw on Scottish beaches covered from head to toe in black rubber? Modesty or to prevent hypothermia?
I realised that the problem was more serious when I had to review the Sunday papers for a radio programme. Several covered the French story and the decision of Mr Sarkozy to launch his bid for the French Presidency with a call for a national ban on Burkinis describing the garment as “a political act; it’s militant, a provocation”. The Mayor of Cannes described Burkinis as “not respectful of good morals and secularism”. Several sarcastic commentators observed that “good morals” were being upheld in another part of the beach by attractive young women wearing topless bikinis to advertise their boobs and minimalist thongs to display their buttocks. And “secularism” was being promoted by a nun in full habit dabbling her toes in the water. Neither were subject to the attention of the Cannes police.
Nor is this just a French issue. The Observer reported that in Germany an ambitious, conservative, minister, Jens Spahn, is bidding to oust Chancellor Merkel. He is a self-declared “burkaphobe” who is campaigning against Muslim dress codes. He also attacks Muslim men for being ‘uptight about showering naked in public gyms’. Since Mr Spahn is openly gay, this may explain his concerns about his showering companions, and they about him. But he makes explicit the link between dress, lifestyle and the acceptability of minorities.
It is tempting to resort to British smugness particularly in the new Brexit world where many believe we are collectively superior to continentals, or at least very different., But when we reflect on the subject, the British ‘live and let live’ approach to dress codes and cultural difference isn’t quite as straightforward as it appears. We do, after all, set dress codes ourselves.
First, the concept of ‘public decency’ hasn’t entirely disappeared. Naturists have their own beaches and would not be tolerated for long elsewhere. It may be that the objection is aesthetic; those who like to strip off are perhaps not those who look best without clothes. But there is also a residual sense that nakedness is something which shouldn’t be inflicted on others who do not choose to seek it out. If anything, we are becoming more, not less, prudish with the partially successful campaign by feminists against topless models in newspapers and adverts.
Second we have uniformed services, school uniforms and corporate dress livery which do set limits on the choice of clothes. In practice, efforts are usually made to accommodate religious and cultural diversity. But there are limits and these do lead to conflict. As Twickenham’s MP I was involved for some years supporting a campaign by a local resident to have the right to wear her Christian cross as part of her British Airways uniform. The company insisted that she remove it. And the matter went to court. Eventually she won her case but after great difficulty.
We also restrict clothing freedom of choice on grounds of safety or security. There was a big argument years ago about compulsory helmets for motorcyclists-for which there was compelling evidence- and whether this should be imposed on Sikhs whose religion requires them to wear turbans. After extensive debate, which surfaced many of the arguments we hear now about Muslims, a dispensation was given and there have been subsequent arguments about extending it to safety wear at work.
A separate issue has been raised about whether the more extreme forms of Muslim dress which cover the face act as a barrier to communication and security checks. It is worth remembering that until quite recently it was not uncommon for Western women to wear veils on-mainly- religious occasions. Others still do because of skin sensitivity to light. A common sense approach would take these issues case-by-case. It is not unreasonable to demand that faces be uncovered for security checks for example or when teaching in schools; but if women feel more comfortable generally in traditional dress that should not be a matter for the authorities.
Then there is the issue of whether certain forms of dress cause such offence that they are unacceptable generally. We tend to take a dim view of fancy dress party goers who appear as Nazis; but that is a matter of taste and reputation rather than the law. In an echo of recent Burkini controversies, one British commentator recently attacked a television station (C4) for allowing a Muslim presenter to appear on air with a head-scarf on the day of the Nice bombing. Since she was clearly not trying to create offence, the commentator was widely criticised for conflating terrorism with Muslim identity. And that is exactly the issue in France.
The underlying issue is whether social groups which have a distinct identity expressed in distinct dress or symbols should be free to express that identity. In France in particular the debate is polarised into a choice between ‘assimilation’ and ‘multiculturalism’. There is legitimate criticism of social policies which encourage minorities to segregate themselves: lack of integration leads to failure to realise opportunities; women can be trapped in oppressive, patriarchal family structures; alienation can produce hostility and conflict and perhaps a proclivity to extremist ideology. There are however many people who are wholly law-abiding and good members of society who simply feel more confident and at ease with people who share the same cultural expression.
The key point however is that there is a false dichotomy between ‘assimilation’ and ‘multiculturalism’. Many people inhabit a world of multiple identities. I recall a party worker who always appeared in her Muslim, black, headscarf. But she was thoroughly Scottish, and British, and European, in her sense of identity. That is surely healthy. My late wife, Olympia, was of Indian origin, born and brought up in Africa, original language Portuguese, Catholic religion and British by marriage and choice; all these were part of her identity.
So where does that leave the Burkini? Hopefully as one of a series of fashion choices for women who are free to express their identity in this way. Attempts to curb that freedom are little more than crude bullying by politicians who are trying to scapegoat minorities as a way of securing power or excusing their security failures.