Burkini bans in France: it’s all about intersectionality
I am struggling to understand the issue of the ‘burkini bans’ in France this week. In the wake of murder, tragedy, and fear, we have something that is quite surreal.
If we wish to understand what is happening, and why such an absurd response has emerged, then our starting point needs to be based on an assumption of intersectionality.
That is, the ways in which the various parts of this absurd puzzle fit together are significant.
In many ways, I completely understand how it has happened that certain French towns on the southern coastline (including Cannes and Nice) have come to implement these ridiculous laws focusing in particular on certain forms of beach wear.
The most obvious reason is, of course, the horrific mass killing of 86 people in the city of Nice on 14 July, when a lorry was deliberately driven into a crowd of people out celebrating the Bastille Day national holiday.
The shock and scale of the killing was in the wake of previous political attacks in France in the past eighteen months — in particular, the Paris attacks on 13 November 2015, the gunning down of staff at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris on 7 January 2015, and the attack on a kosher supermarket the following day. And then, only 12 days after the Nice killings, a parish priest was murdered in a church near Rouen in the north.
All of these killings were claimed as part of a political campaign by the Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh), based in Syria and Iraq, which is seeking to use indiscriminate mass murder as a means of waging a proxy war against European and American states, and to create a crisis for European and north American Muslims.
There can be no doubt that many French people are in fear at the moment. Not only of the tangible threat of Daesh political violence, but also from a more nebulous fear of an ‘enemy within’ amongst the country’s 4.7 million Muslim population. Fear of such French Muslims predates Daesh by many years, and has been carefully encouraged by certain political groups in France for a long time, particularly by the Le Pen’s Front National Party.
Such scapegoating and stereotyping is rarely rational, so it comes as no surprise in the end that it has culminated in an image of armed male police on a sunny beach, forcing an (apparently-)Muslim woman to remove her clothing, and then fining her.
It appears from the outside to be quite literally fighting (perceived) patriarchy with, well, actual patriarchy.
Trying to make some sense?
Earlier this week, I wrote a short overview of some of the approaches that I argue are at the heart of the contemporary study of religion. At the centre of that approach is what is called intersectionality.
In short, intersectionality is about trying to understand complexity through the framework of complexity. It is about recognising that every context has multiple issues, that there are no straightforward or reductive explanations, but that instead there are multiple strands of any situation, cultural context, or even public controversy.
The burkini ban in France is a clear example of the need for such an intersectional approach.
Intersectionality requires us to ask questions about gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity, religion, history, politics, and agency. Although in any given culture or situation one of these may be stressed by particular parties (thus, some will argue, of course, that the burkini is primarily about religion), we gain so much more by looking not only at all the different aspects — as a complex matrix — but also the intersections between and across those aspects.
Here is a brief sketch of what I mean by that.
As I have already highlighted, the issue of the burkini is about gender. Like the ‘veil’, the hijab, the niqab, and the burqa, it is about a particular form of clothing that predominantly women wear.
Criticism of the veil and the burkini comes from both women and men, and is associated with both right-wing conservative critics of Islam as well as liberal and left-wing feminists.
As I have mentioned already, the implementation of the ban on the burkini has led to performative acts of women being required to publicly remove items of clothing, in front of the male law-enforcement officers, and other men and women on the beach.
The development of the burkini as an item of clothing is relatively recent (2004). It was first developed by an Australian Muslim woman, to provide apparel for public activity (sports and swimming, and other public leisure activities) to meet a large population’s perceived need for modest covering in such contexts. On this basis, it appears to have been a successful innovation.
The name burkini is not accidental. It is a portmanteau neologism made up to bring together two strands: Muslim ideas of female modesty (for example, the burqa or full face, head, and upper body cover) and mainstream swimming and beach wear, as exemplified by the bikini.
The bikini has long been a feminist issue, about the portrayal of the woman’s body and the sexualisation in particular of young heterosexual women (in relation to heterosexual men).
The history of that objectification is (perhaps) ironically linked back to Bridget Bardot being photographed wearing a bikini on Cannes beach in 1953, which at that time was widely seen as an obscenity (on account of the sexualised nature of Bardot’s clothing).
In many respects, the burkini is a direct challenge to such sexualisation and objectification. Although many non-Muslims may see the burkini as an imposition of certain values on Muslim women by Muslim men, the women wearing the clothing often see things differently.
That is, it is an acceptance of public leisure activity (such as swimming and sun bathing) whilst rejecting certain forms of objectification and sexualisation of women’s bodies.
Race and ethnicity
What also marks out the burkini issue is the race/ethnicity division between those who wear and those who oppose the burkini. Burkini wearers are not only women, they are largely north African (Arab and Berber) women. Of course, not all French north Africans wear burkinis, but it is a form of clothing primarily identified as worn by such women.
What the burkini bans are drawing attention to is not only the perceived ethnic difference of its wearers (as north Africans) but also the ethnic status of those who are advocating the ban, as a form of whiteness (the white French). In many respects, it is this ethnic whiteness that is seen as being under attack most of all.
At the same time, the racial identity of whiteness is one of the least discussed elements of the dispute (one could say, it is the elephant in the room — or perhaps the elephant on the beach).
What adds further irony to the situation is that various styles of the burkini are in fact very similar to wet suits that are worn by people from both north African and white backgrounds. Both are all body covers, and many wet suits have a hood to cover the head in ways similar to the burkini. The wet suit is usually a ‘unisex’ (all gender) piece of clothing but most burkinis are designed specifically with a style and shape that places them as women’s clothing.
This is not to say that people who are considered white do not wear burkinis.
There are white Muslims, mainly people who have made the choice to become Muslim (converts, or reverts as they prefer to call themselves), and of these some white Muslim women may wear the burkini if they feel it useful.
There was also a famous case of the white English TV chef Nigella Lawson, who was photographic wearing a Muslim-designed burkini in 2011.
This did generate considerable publicity at the time, although it did not result in any calls to ban either the clothing or Nigella Lawson herself.
Lawson has never publicly identified herself as Muslim, and did not claim any specifically religious reason for wearing the burkini. In fact, her stress was on aspects of the clothing that are identified as not being religious.
Quite interestingly with regard to the issue of race and colour, Lawson did later make public one particular reason why she wore the clothing.
According to a newspaper report in 2014, a friend of Nigella Lawson said that she had been required (or forced?) to wear the all-body swimwear by her then husband Charles Saatchi. The rationale for her wearing it was not because of Saatchi being a dominating Muslim husband requiring his wife to follow (his interpretations of) the laws of Islam, but rather because he wanted her to preserve her skin colour.
‘Charles wants his women to be porcelain white or have alabaster skin. That’s the real reason why Nigella was so covered up.’
Thus the burkini was perceived as keeping a white person white, or more particularly a white woman white for the enjoyment of a man who felt he owned her.
This is somewhat in contrast with the issues now raging in 2016 in the cases of the French burkini bans — where the burkini is being portrayed as a violent threat against whiteness.
Issues of religion and religious identity do clearly come into this analysis, since, as is strongly articulated in the bans themselves, the issue at stake is seen as the threat of Islam in particular. Thus, the French north Africans are particularly Muslims (rather than being Jewish or Christian). It is this Muslim-ness (and Islam) that is often spoken about as the cause of the issue.
There are, of course, issues that are specifically ascribed to Islam. For those wearing burkinis, the explanation for the clothing is put in what we would consider to be religious terms. That is, it is described as a ‘requirement’ of Islam and/or it allows women (in particular) to dress ‘modestly’ according to how they understand the requirements of Islam.
On the other hand, the non-Muslim French see the issue as being related to Daesh (the Islamic State), the threat of violence and terrorism. Indeed, one of the burkini bans has specifically described the clothing as being linked to terrorism.
Thus in Cannes, Thierry Migoule, the head of municipal services is reported as saying about their decision to impose the ban:
‘We are not talking about banning the wearing of religious symbols on the beach … but ostentatious clothing which refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements which are at war with us.’
Interestingly, one commentator has made the case in more negative terms. That is, Lionnel Luca, the mayor of Villeneuve-Loubet (just along the coast from Nice) sought to justify his town’s ban by saying that the burkini is not necessarily Islamic.
‘I don’t think this is religious dress; there is nothing in the Qur’an to say you have to wear a burkini.’
On a very literal level this is correct, the term ‘burkini’ does not appear in the Qur’an. However, the opinion of Muslims is very mixed on whether the form of dress that the burkini represents is required or not for Muslims. It is interesting that this mayor feels confident enough to make such Qur’anic interpretation.
My point here is not to conclude whether the burkini is or is not religious, whether it is a religious requirement or option for Muslims, or indeed whether it is religious prejudice that motivates the proponents of the burkini bans.
Instead, I want to stress that we have here a controversy that is rooted in issues that we (and also the people involved) think of as being caused by what is considered religion. This is either as advocates of such religion (Muslims wishing to be Muslim) or opponents of such religion (due to its threat of violence, or as a threat to culture, identity, and law and order).
But when we find such a specifically ‘religious’ issue, it is not solely ‘religious’.
The things we consider to be the religious elements intersect with all the other issues. We cannot understand the context without looking at and trying to understand the matrix of intersections that go far beyond what we normally expect religion to be about.
And that is not a problem. It is what we should expect from any issue.
History and postcolonialism
As we look at all of these issues with the burkini bans — gender, sexuality, race, and religion — we need to keep in mind that none of these exist in a timeless bubble.
It appears that both main parties in the dispute may be pushing us to see the problem without any significant reference to history. Those on one side may be saying ‘Islam is peace’ or ‘Islam respects women’, whilst on the other there is the argument that ‘liberty and laïcité are sacred’ or ‘Islam abuses women’.
All of the issues involved are related to histories — from the very recent history of Daesh-inspired attacks in France and Belgium, to European and north American interventions in the Arab world (particularly the Iraq war and occupation). Going further back there is the French colonialism in north Africa, and the roots of inward migration of north Africans into France during the period of decolonisation and postcolonialism.
History (in fact, various histories) have brought us to this situation, and it is only through bringing those histories into our analysis that we can begin to try to understand the many complexities.
And within those histories, of most importance probably is the playing out of the movement from colonial to postcolonial history. How did the imbalance of power between France (and other European countries) and north African and Arab countries develop into the world in which we live today?
The presence of significant numbers of French north African Muslim women on beaches in the south of France is one product of those long histories. And the decision by some of those women to wear burkinis is yet again something that has emerged out of this.
How and why have these things happened?
And why do we fail to locate our questions and understandings of such events in these histories of colonialism?
Power and agency
My final point of interest here relates to questions of power and agency.
As I have pointed to at various parts of this discussion, this debate is about power:
Male power with respect to women (and vice versa); male assertions of power through clothing and sexuality; power in race relations; power within and between religious groups and identities. And most notably, the ongoing power dynamics of a world shaped by European colonialism and postcolonialism.
Scholars of religion need to ask questions about power. This is to understand how power works at all levels of society, in all human relationships and contexts. Power creates human activity — as Michel Foucault said, power is everywhere. When we look at all these aspects of culture — gender, sexuality, race, religion, and history — we see the dynamics of power.
And where there is power, there is also agency. By this we mean the ways in which people live within — and sometimes challenge — the operations of power and culture (and religion).
On one level, the wearing of burkinis (as with other head coverings) by Muslims is an act of agency — either to conform to the expectations (and sometimes bullying) of male Muslim relatives or to choose to stand out as being Muslim in a largely hostile non-Muslim environment.
It is also in itself a challenge to white non-Muslim values, which is itself challenging Islam and Muslims. Burkini-wearing women are also challenging predominant white values of sexuality, of body showing as manifest clearly within the idea of the bikini.
There is a tendency within the study of religion — and cultural studies in general — to valorise the types of agency that are challenging, particularly agency by women against patriarchy and oppression. This is for good reason — records of such agency are hard to find, since the white male historians, record keepers, and religious leaders were not interested in preserving the voices of women and colonial subjects who fought against their values in the past.
But such valorisation should not stop us also trying to understand the other forms of agency that lead to women and minority groups choosing to conform, particularly when what they do may be challenging in other ways. In such a case, the wearing of a burkini on a French beach is both a ‘submissive’ and ‘revolutionary’ act at the same time — and perhaps for the same person.
This becomes even more so when the local authority imposes a ban on the act of wearing that clothing. The agency then becomes one of defiance, even like sitting in the ‘wrong’ part of the bus.
What I have aimed to do in this discussion is show how intersectionality is a key part of the analysis of a particular controversy that has been defined primarily in terms of it being ‘religious’.
There are quite obviously issues here that relate to the term ‘religion’, and these are specific to one particular religion/religious tradition (that is, Islam). However, the conflict and our understanding of it needs to see how that idea (or discourse) of religion is related to the very wide context of gender, sexuality, race, history, and power (all of which subsume this term ‘religion’).
There is no simple or straightforward explanation or answer to this issue. We cannot simply say that this is a ‘misunderstanding’ of the ‘true meaning’ of Islam, and neither can we agree with the proponents of the burkini bans that such clothing is an expression of violence and/or terrorism.
All we can do is look at how understandings and practices of power through issues such as gender and race are lying very close beneath the surface of such a conflict.
Our interpretation of the issues, and the values that we put on the various arguments and advocates on each side of this conflict may then come from our intersectional analysis.
Perhaps then we may understand this surreal conflict a little better.