How to Talk About the Burkini

Since the Mayor of Cannes (‘un gros con’ with an ego problem according to a French friend of mine) banned burkinis on the beach, debate has erupted yet again, like a volcano that never stops bothering the inhabitants of the town below, on whether the burkini is oppressive to women or whether banning it is oppressive to women.

What if both are oppressive, both the burkini itself (or the burqa), and the ban? Is that possible? Feminist argument: Women should choose the burkini or the bikini, not be told by men or government to cover or uncover their bodies.

Philosophical argument: Do they really have freedom of choice? Those who choose the burkini do so because of a value system that tells them covering their bodies is better for themselves and society. Those who choose the bikini have a value system that tells them uncovering their bodies is better for themselves and society. Is this then a problem of majority vs. minority opinion, or making the wrong choice in the wrong country?

I liked this article, France’s Burkini Bigotry, that explains the issue in the context of France in transition, confronting the idea that the furore over the burkini is not about religion or politics, but about a narrow understanding of French identity being forced to expand, and of some of the colonialist and post-colonial legacies forcing that expansion.

Yet it does not question certain assumptions: that patriarchal systems are still trying to enforce clothing choices on French women, that there is deep sexism ingrained in French society, and that both Islamism and secularism are being aggressively used to shape French society in an authoritarian manner. The burkini ban effectively pushes certain French Muslim women out of public space.

In Pakistan, where I live, there is no law — as in Saudi Arabia or Iran — about what women should wear. Dress codes are left to be defined by institutions, organizations, families. They veer on the conservative most of the time, except in certain bastions of Westernized society. Society still dictates that women should not leave the house unless properly — decently — clothed. This means a woman can be entrapped in her house, if she doesn’t choose to wear the burqa.

Therefore you see hundreds of thousands of Pakistani women choosing to wear a burqa because it is a matter of expediency. They wear the burqas to their jobs in the malls, in schools, in houses as domestic workers, to beauty salons. When they get to their destinations they take off the burqa and wear a uniform. Then they put the burqa back on before going home.

So that women can be empowered financially, or get their educations, the burqa, or the burkini, becomes the vehicle of expediency. The mistake we make is to mistake it as the actual agency of women. If it were truly so, we wouldn’t see the images of Syrian women burning their burqas as soon as their villages were liberated by ISIS. We would see thousands of women rushing to don burqas for no other reason than faith alone.

Writer and scholar Myra McDonald wonders if we can make a distinction “between those who use it as a vehicle of expediency, and those who choose it in belief.” What I have seen of Muslim women, who cannot help but be affected by patriarchy on at least some level or in some sphere of their life, is that they operate on both levels – expediency and belief. It is hard to make a distinction, although McDonald says this is necessary on a theoretical level to establish a principled position on this. (She also adds that non-Muslim women also operate on multiple levels since they also face sexism, such as urging a daughter not to wear a miniskirt because it might be unsafe, although they dislike the idea that their daughter should not wear what she likes). Even plenty of non-Muslim women, especially the poor Christian women, wear burqas in Pakistan for their own protection.

But on issues like these, principled positions are the luxury of the outsider, the observer and the academic. Muslim women are trying to make spaces for themselves where they can be comfortable, as Pakistani activist Gul Bukhari says. There are some situations where a burkini feels more comfortable, others where a bikini might suit. Can we eliminate the value systems that deem them “mandatory” or “forbidden” and really operate on the comfort level of women, their needs, necessities, and desires? Can we then accept that simplistic binaries don’t suit the complexity of women and their lives?

Maybe in another thousand years.

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