The global response to the “burkini ban” in France was swift and united. The ban faced overwhelming opposition from across the political spectrum, and rightly so. The spectacle of police compelling a woman to remove her chosen beach wear and display more flesh was shocking, and today we see that a French court has suspended the ban in the Mediterranean town of Villeneuve-Loubet. It seems likely this will set a precedent for the approximately 30 other towns that imposed similar beach bans.
All’s well that ends well, yes?
Well no, not really. The ban and the way it was enforced were wrong. Such a law would be clearly unconstitutional in the United States, as it specifically targeted a particular religious practice. As repeated photos of nuns paddling in the shallow water showed, nothing stopped other women completely covering themselves at the beach. The ban apparently applied to Islamic dress types only, and was justified based on the burkini being, in the words of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, a “provocation” in support of radical Islam.
France is a country with strict commitment to a particular view of secularism. Since 2004, France has banned the wearing of religious symbols in schools and universities, and since 2010, has banned full face veils in public. The first would be a very hard sell constitutionally in the US. The latter is probably constitutionally permissible – laws banning masks in public are on the books in many states, originally to deal with the problem raised by the Ku Klux Klan. If applied across the board, and they have recently been used against protestors affiliated with the Anonymous movement, they have not in themselves been held to violate the First Amendment. Whether, on the other hand, a religious exemption to a ban on facial covering would be required under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) is a different question.
So why isn’t the end of this ban in one French city solely a cause for celebration? Because it simply leaves us where we were before regarding religious dress codes. While our commitment to religious freedom and free speech and expression requires us to support the right of women to dress as they wish, whether that be in “revealing” or “modest” attire, or anything in between, whether for purely personal or religious reasons, in the significant majority of cases, religious dress codes for women are not voluntarily adopted by their wearers. In many countries, particularly in the Middle East, women face arrest and punishment from religious police if they do not follow the dress code. Even in secular democracies where the rights of women to dress as they please is legally protected, the pressure, emotional, economic, and all too often physical, to comply and obey the religious restrictions cannot be overstated.
This is not solely an Islamic matter. Forms of both Christianity and Judaism also impose dress codes on women (and men). And the reasoning behind them is the same as in Islam, and denigrates women. A woman must dress modestly to avoid inflaming the passions of men. The responsibility to prevent a male sin, looking lustfully at women, or acting on that lust, is placed firmly on the shoulders of the woman. It isn’t up to the man to control his desires; it is up to the woman not to be a temptation. This religious modesty requirement is simply an old, societally-wide expression of the questions posed to rape victims. What were you wearing? Did you dance with him? How did you lead him on?
For the majority of women who wear it, the burka or burkini, the Mennonite dress, the Orthodox Jewish covering of upper legs and arms, isn’t a voluntary, liberating expression of freely chosen modesty. It’s an imposed standard, part of a societal structure of control that ranges from honor killings and bans on women being educated or driving, to women being held to be ritually unclean when menstruating, or remaining silent in places of worship (1 Cor. 14:34). It is absolutely important that we fight for the rights of those who choose to wear any style of dress. But once that fight is won, as it has been here, it is much more critical that we don’t walk away from those who do not have that choice to make. Religious dress codes marginalize and oppress women across the world, and must be challenged and opposed.
So yes, it is a good thing that at least one French court has rejected this law, with hopefully more to follow. A ban on burkinis doesn’t integrate French Islamic women into society, but instead seems likely to force them further out of it. We wouldn’t see more bikini wearing Islamic women on French beaches as a result, we would simply see fewer Islamic women on French beaches. But we also need to address the real problem, that of religion being used to compel women to dress and act in ways designed by men, to further emphasize their secondary role to men. That is where the real fight lies. Let’s not let a victory for the small group of voluntary burkini wearers blind us to the massive, ongoing, negative impact of compulsory religious dress codes.
Image by Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuño – CC BY 2.0