Burkinis on the beach just an act of provocation?
Policed by their husbands, fathers and sons, these women don't deserve further punishment
Published 28/08/2016 | 02:30
We live in a visual age where a picture is worth a thousand words and an image - the heartbreaking sight of three-year-old refugee Alan Kurdi washed up on the sands of Turkey, the haunting stillness of five-year-old Aleppo air strike victim Omran Daqneesh sitting in an ambulance, Sister Mariana, the Italian nun, dazed yet serene amid the ruins of Amatrice - garrotes us with our own heartstrings.
But there is rarely just one tale to be told, one single thread that can be followed from beginning to conclusion and neatly tied up. Sometimes, on closer scrutiny, that narrative thread turns out to be a complex cat's cradle of knots and twists and connections that must be carefully unravelled.
The photograph of gendarmes standing over a lone Muslim woman on the beach in Nice, who has been ordered to take off her shirt, is one such picture.
The middle-aged woman was deemed to be in breach of French law, which saw a ban of burkinis, full-body 'Islamic' swimwear, in 26 towns, on the grounds that it is a conspicuous demonstration of religious belief (on Friday, France's highest administrative court suspended the ban, pending a definitive ruling).
In fairness, the muscularly secular French state bans the wearing of crucifixes as well as veils in public institutions. But is it fair for a Muslim mother to be fined for wearing a top and leggings on a beach?
Is it reasonable that teenagers swimming in burkinis should be met at the water's edge by police, and stigmatised for refusing to adhere to the Republique's principles, when actually it's their father they feel a greater compunction to obey?
Certainly the photograph is disturbing and deeply troubling. The power balance between the standing policemen and the sitting woman, who partially undresses on their orders, onlookers peering through sunglasses, is unmistakeable, menacing even.
This has led a number of commentators to draw facile and unhelpful parallels with Nazis stripping Jewish women in the street. Such comparisons are lazy, obfuscatory and wholly invidious.
Why? Because France, which has Europe's largest Muslim population of around five million, is facing a unique challenge in a unique set of circumstances; there are no precedents for the dilemma it faces.
On the one hand it must uphold its secularism even-handedly. In the wake of such attacks as Charlie Hebdo, Bataclan, Nice and elsewhere, they must take on board the concerns of the majority when they are confronted by a dress code that signals not just religious conservatism, but distance and otherness.
On the other, it must recognise that for a great number of these women this is a code policed by husbands, fathers and sons in order to reflect and represent their misogynistic piety. The full body and face covering is a cultural phenomenon, not a religious obligation. A decade ago, it was a rarity in Europe and elsewhere, but its inhumane enforcement has spread with the rise of conservatism.
Anyone who has watched the footage of female Syrian refugees joyfully tearing off the face veils imposed by Isil can be in no doubt that to cloak and conceal an entire gender is a form of sexual subjugation.
Back in the South of France, the fact these Muslim women were even allowed to go bathing or sunbathing is something to be examined, too.
Were they simply given their male relatives' blessing to go and have a paddle? From what I understand, veiled women rarely have much say over their daily activities, so it's unlikely they went on a whim.
Or could it be they were sent out by those very menfolk by way of a provocation? A visible presence? A reminder of the "modest" values of Islam? If so, these pictures make for Isil propaganda.
Militant Islam uses and abuses women, without compunction. Devout Islam may or may not be brutal, but it is unapologetically controlling. The unhappy truth is that women in strict communities do not have free will, do not have choice, and do not have a say in how they dress.
When I see women in burkinis on a beach, my first thought is a fatuous "they must be feeling really hot". My second thought is "how sad not to feel the wind in their hair or the indescribably ticklish slap of water against bare stomach".
But my third thought is "how lovely they have an opportunity to escape the dragging folds of their prescribed gowns and veils and lark about as nature and, yes, God intended".
I would like to see face veils outlawed in Britain for the simple reason that this is, and always has been, a culture in which we have an expectation and a right to look one another in the eye during public life.
As far as the burkini goes, I hate it. I have one, that I wrote about for a story. I would never willingly wear it, because I reject the implication that it's a women's responsibility to cover herself from prying eyes, rather than the prying eyes' duty to look away.
But I think a ban is impossible, not least because I don't know how the French authorities can possibly differentiate legally between a burkini and a wetsuit - intention? Percentage of neoprene? Laminated scuba-diving qualification?
There's a fine line between healthy tolerance and stubborn liberalism at all costs. But we must keep sight of our humanity too; faces must be uncovered, but beyond that I believe the state should not intervene.
These women are already being used as pawns in private. To penalise them for the little freedom they are allowed on a public beach is to punish the victims twice.