Monday 24 October 2016

Why we should fight burkinis on beaches

France's objection to the burkini arises out of a love of women, not a hatred of Muslims

Allison Pearson

Published 04/09/2016 | 02:30

Wave of disquiet: A woman wearing a burkini walks in the water on a beach in Marseille as the debate about the all-covering swimsuit continues Photo: REUTERS/Stringer
Wave of disquiet: A woman wearing a burkini walks in the water on a beach in Marseille as the debate about the all-covering swimsuit continues Photo: REUTERS/Stringer

On a bathing platform in Turkey, I found myself sunbathing next to a Muslim family. The father strutted about in a pair of teeny red trunks, just visible beneath the landslide of his vast belly. The mother wore a black and orange burkini, which left only her face, hands and feet exposed. She looked like a broiling penguin, clearly suffering in the intense heat.

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Their lovely children - two girls and a boy - jumped into the water again and again, as lithe and playful as porpoises.

I gazed at the girls and wondered how long. How long before they had to put away their pretty bikinis and their Caramac tummies, how long before they would never know the bliss of sun and sea on their skin again? I gave them about two years, poor mites. No such loss of freedom or pleasure would trouble their brother.

As the battle of the burkini rages in France, some have claimed that at least this ludicrous garment affords Muslim women the opportunity to go swimming, when they might otherwise be locked away. I find that argument gives me the same sinking feeling as a sign on the gate to a meadow saying, "Dogs must be kept on a lead". What appals is the way that Western women protested outside the French embassy waving a sign saying: "Non Islamophobia. Oui aux burkinis." How dim and deluded can you be? France's objection to the burkini, and its ugly sister the burka, arises from a love of women, not a hatred of Muslims.

On UK's Radio 4's Any Questions, the British Labour MP Cat Smith said: "It is absolutely offensive in the 21st century ... when men with guns start policing what women should and shouldn't wear." Ms Smith was referring to cops on the beach in Nice who had been trying to enforce a ban on the burkini. It genuinely didn't seem to occur to her that the men who are most keenly policing what women should and shouldn't wear in the 21st century are the ones who belong to a repressive, misogynistic culture that denies females agency over their own bodies. That's what I call offensive.

Sorry to break this to you, Cat, but Islamists aren't actually in the 21st century; they've barely made it into the 20th and, unless they're stopped, they fully intend to turn the clock back to the 14th, when girls were for breeding purposes only.

It's much more comfortable for outraged liberals to attack their own culture for trying, however clumsily, to protect its values than it is to address the vexed question of what you do about a fanatical religious minority that despises our freedoms. As one scathing wit put it on Twitter: "This burkini ban is ridiculous. It's 2016 and we live in a liberal, tolerant society. People should be free to enslave whomever they choose."

After a murderous summer in which toddlers were mown down by a truck in Nice and an 85-year-old priest had his throat cut before his own altar, France is setting out what a modern, equal society can and cannot tolerate. It deserves our sympathy. Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls is surely right to call the burkini "a symbol of the enslavement of women". If it isn't, then why aren't Muslim men wearing them, eh?

And I'm afraid the fact that a woman may "choose" to wear a burkini doesn't mean that her "choice" must always be respected. Not if it ends up intimidating other Muslim women into feeling ashamed for exposing their own flesh, making integration even harder. It's not what the burkini is, but the poisonous ideology it represents.

The key question is where does authority lie if too much is conceded to minorities? Consider a small clash of cultures closer to home. At a graduation ceremony for one college in the University of London, proud parents look on as their offspring queue up to receive a handshake from the principal. The audience includes my friend Jackie. It should be a joyful occasion, but there is unease in the room. The female Muslim students put on gloves to shake hands with the principal or they hold out their programmes to signal they do not wish to make physical contact with him.

Many people feel uncomfortable, but no one objects. Jackie says: "You think, how weird is it that a university, of all places, is pandering to a minority instead of saying, 'I'm sorry, but this is how we do things here'. Actually, we don't think it's wrong for a man and a woman to shake hands. We think it's nice and polite, so deal with it."

Is this multiculturalism in action, or is it cowardly pandering to a sexist custom the majority of us find alien? How long before the university decides to dispense with handshakes at its graduation ceremony lest it cause offence to those who won't participate?

Compare and contrast with the German response. In June, Hamburg teachers staged a walk-out during an end-of-term ceremony for students after a Muslim pupil refused to shake the hand of his female class teacher. "No offence," he said, "my religion won't let me do that."

Fellow teachers did take offence, however. They insisted that the boy be sent home. When the headmaster refused, members of staff walked out.

On the surface, this may seem like a minor discourtesy that can easily be overlooked to keep the peace. But where do you draw the line, and, more importantly, who gets to draw it?

Segregated sessions for Muslim women at a public swimming baths look harmless enough, less so a segregated political meeting involving senior British politicians with the women banished to an adjacent room. I admire Nicolas Sarkozy for saying last week that the French republic will never ever accept segregated bathing. He knows it's the thin end of the wedge.

When she was British home secretary, the present Prime Minister Theresa May launched an inquiry into the state of Sharia law to examine whether Islamic courts "are being used to support forced marriage and issue unfair divorces".

Again, it sounds unobjectionable, doesn't it? But why is a parallel legal system, one that weighs a woman's evidence as worth half that of a man, allowed to exist in a democracy in the first place?

Slowly and insidiously, Islamic laws and practices are allowed to take root and it then falls to the host country to challenge them. It ends up making us look intolerant, when what we are guilty of is being too tolerant by half.

We don't need an inquiry into how well or how badly Sharia courts are discriminating against women. We simply need a ban so discrimination isn't even a possibility.

And please spare me the howls of concern for the rights of women to dress as they please when there is zero anger about the rights of women forced into ugly, repressive garments by a bunch of medieval misogynists. Just look at the smiles of those women in Syria the other week who cast off their burkas as soon as Isil had left.

Burkinis? We shall fight them on the beaches. We shall defend our bikinis.

We shall never surrender the rights men and women died for.

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