Liberté, égalité, fraternité pour qui?

In recent weeks, a series of French municipal decrees de facto banning “burkinis” and, apparently, any other skin concealing beach outfits worn by Muslim women were made in about 30 French towns. Women have received fines and armed French police have ordered some women to remove their clothing, as seen on a beach in Nice:

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This treatment of Muslim women in France has put a lot of doubt into my mind of whether the motto of “liberty, equality, fraternity” (liberté, égalité, fraternité) still applies to all French residents. Liberty involves the social and political freedoms to which all community members are entitled. Equality means all people within a society have the same status in respect to civil rights, freedom of speech, and equal access to social goods and services. Fraternity, although highly patriarchal and better represented as solidarity, is a kind of ethical relationship between people, which is based on compassion. The ban on burkinis, or any other style of dress associated with an identifiable group, runs counter to all three of these principles.

Women are not allowed the freedom (liberty) to choose what they want to wear on a beach. A Corsican mayor who also banned the garment said that the burkini was “liable to offend the religious convictions or (religious) non-convictions of other users of the beach.” This mayor, like others, is wrong on many counts. No one has the right to be free of offence. In fact, that runs counter to freedom of speech. Just as a person has the right to wear a revealing swimsuit free from sexual harassment, so too does someone wearing full coverings, like a long-sleeved shirt, a wetsuit, or a burkini. As a London woman reflected on how the ban connects to her own past:

“This display of men controlling how women dress reminded me of my humiliation at an open-air pool in Ruislip in 1957 when I, beautifully suntanned and wearing a bikini, was ordered by loudhailer to leave the pool and dress suitably. Nothing changes, just a further reason – religion and terrorism are the current excuse.”

There is no compassion (fraternity) in mandating a woman’s choice of dress, let alone forcing a woman to strip in public in front of armed men. Furthermore, this ban is targeting Muslim women exclusively, in clear opposition to the notion of equality. What if Catholic nuns were banned from French beaches, given fines and forced to remove their religious habit? I don’t think that would be tolerated.

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Another woman, a mother of two, was fined on a beach in Cannes while wearing a headscarf. “The saddest thing was that people were shouting ‘go home’, some were applauding the police,” a witness of the incident said. “Her daughter was crying.” Her ticket, seen by French news agency AFP, read that she was not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism”.

I’ve heard some French politicians cite “secular values” as a reason for the ban, however, I think they are misguided in their terminology. Secularism favors open, democratic societies in which the state takes a neutral position with respect to religion, protection the freedom of individuals to follow and espouse, or reject and criticize, both religious and atheist beliefs. French officials are doing anything but be neutral. Coercing people into embracing religious belief should is no worse than coercing people into embracing anti-religious belief. Both are fundamentalist and both should be opposed.

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As Human Rights Watch (HRW) points out, the bans were adopted in the aftermath of two horrific terror attacks: the truck attack in Nice and the church killing in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray. In Nice, the administrative court ruled that banning the burkini is “necessary, appropriate and proportionate to the aim pursued in terms of the protection of public order and security” in the context of terrorist threats. It appears that security (securité) may need to be added to the French motto.

But this reasoning is again misleading. As HRW notes, “what in fact these bans serve to do is create a dangerous and absurd confusion between how some Muslim women choose to dress and the despicable terrorist attacks that French people, of all religions, have suffered.” The bans may even worsen security. It increases tensions between communities, fuels Islamophobia, and reaffirms the feeling of injustice felt by some Muslims in France. In just one example, skirmishes at a beach in the commune of Sisco earlier this month left four people injured and resulted in riot police being brought in to stop a crowd of 200 Corsicans marching into a housing estate with a high population of people of North African origin, shouting “this is our home”. State repression will not solve these problems.

In addition to being unfair and discriminatory, the burkini ban is also misogynistic.

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The burkini is a cultural and religiously inspired mode of bathing attire, which women choose to wear to make them feel safe from the sexual gaze of society. The ban excludes women from public spaces, depriving them of their rights to autonomy, to leisure activities, to wear what they chose, and of course to practice their faith. As Huda Jawad writes, “such policies and acts of discrimination are examples of how Islamophobia is more likely to manifest itself in a gendered way which targets and affects women uniquely, adding to their misogynistic oppression and religious victimisation”.

Going forward, it appears that the French judiciary is starting to put an end to this shameful ban. France’s highest administrative court, the Conseil D’Etat, ruling for the Human Rights League and Collective Against Islamophobia in France, ordered the suspension of the ban adopted by Villeneuve-Loubet, a small town on the French Riviera. Although the ruling only has direct impact on that specific ban, it should create a precedent for 30 other municipalities with similar rules.

Many other European countries also ban burkas, or face veils. In Switzerland, women face fines of up to £8,000 for wearing a burka. The law came into effect in July following a 2013 referendum. Similar laws have since been passed in Belgium and the Netherlands. The Swiss ban was inspired by a similar French law passed in 2010 and upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in 2014. European judges ruled that the measure aimed at stopping women covering their faces in public was entirely justified, adding that the garment threatened the right of people “to live together”. One must question whether Muslims are also people that have a right to live together.

As described above, these bans are discriminatory, racist and misogynistic. They do nothing for security and seem counter-productive. If we want to create a peaceful society, we cannot greet hatred with hatred, intolerance with intolerance. We need to hold fast to the better elements of society. For France, this means providing all people with liberty, equality and solidarity. Especially when it seems difficult.

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