The ‘burkini’: What will you be wearing to the beach this season?

When women are fined for what they wear, there is no freedom of choice.

Secularism or terrorism? There are only two choices in France this summer, and you have to choose one.

On Aug. 13 David Lisnard, the mayor of Cannes, was the first to introduce the ban on the Islamic ‘burkini’, stating that “The burkini is like a uniform, a symbol of Islamist extremism. This is why I am banning it for the summer.”

A string of similar decisions in other towns have followed, leading to increased tensions among residents and confrontations between beach goers. Terrorist attacks across Europe over the past 12 months have left France in a continued state of emergency, and this is just the latest in a series of snap decisions and human rights infringements by the French government in an effort to combat the violent extremism that seems to be on the rise in the country.

The cost of violating this ban, personal dignity notwithstanding, is 38 Euros. Oh, and you might get booted from the beach by a mob of angry sunbathers. In other words, to paraphrase the government’s policy, “Pay us 38 Euros because the way you publicly present your body and personal values is offensive”.

Since 9/11, countries in the West have been looking for reasons to politicize Muslim women’s bodies. Western governments criticize and condemn foreign governments and extremist groups for their treatment of women and use these oppressive practices as justification for all sorts of armed crusades under the guise of “interventions,” “liberations” and “sanctions”.

Saudi Arabia’s aggressively strict and conservative interpretation of Islam, called Wahhabism, still allows for the murder of women who commit adultery. In parts of Afghanistan the Taliban still lock women in houses and paint their windows black, sometimes permitting them to set foot in the street but only if cloaked from head to toe and accompanied by a male relative. If they violate this ‘law’ they are chased and violently beaten. Today ISIL continues to inflict sadistic medieval treatment on the thousands of women who are held captive in areas of Syria and Iraq. Governments in the West are often the first to condemn this extreme and oppressive behavior, routinely using it as justification for starting and stoking some of the messiest and devastating conflicts in history.

France’s ban on the burkini might not equate to inflicting physical violence on Muslim women, but the ban is still inherently violent because it violates the rights of the individual and their feelings of personal safety and freedom. We have seen similar moves by the former Conservative government under Stephen Harper, who used comparable rhetoric to try and establish a ban on the niqab during citizenship ceremonies and for those with jobs in the civil service.

It is crucial in these situations to ask the question of where we draw the line between protecting people, promoting national values and infringing on someone’s rights. Is it okay to infringe on some rights as long as we’re not inflicting physical punishment or killing people?

The fear in France is understandable given the violence citizens of that country have endured in recent months, but fear doesn’t justify infringements on people’s civil liberties, such as the burkini ban. Women getting chased by men and threatened for wearing a type of bathing suit? Women having to pay a fine because of how they are dressed? Families asked to leave public spaces because they’ve offended those around them?

 When women are being chased, harassed, threatened and fined for how they choose to present their bodies to the world, there is no freedom of choice.

We have seen similar acts of institutionalized violence toward Muslim women elsewhere in Europe in the recent past. One notable example is the minaret referendum in Switzerland, the self-proclaimed neutral country, which banned the construction of minarets on mosques in 2009. The ban in itself did not target Muslim women directly, however the poster used to promote and popularize the ban displayed a Muslim woman dressed in a burqa next to minarets drawn to look like missiles.

It’s a slippery slope when we start fear mongering at the expense of diversity in the interest of ‘public safety’.

It should be evident by now that governments cannot use fear as the basis for law-making and policy change. It does not make the public safer. In fact, it has the opposite effect. We need look no further than the current U.S. presidential elections to see how using fear to solicit votes sets dangerous precedents of bigotry, racism and violence.

Normalizing the types of restrictions we are seeing in France and Switzerland will only further the dangerous divide and allow intolerance to become commonplace, accepted and encouraged.

Behind the argumentsrr on both sides of the burqa/burkini debate is the idea of choice. Are these women choosing to cover or is someone choosing for them? People ask, is it really their choice or is it because of some over-arching cultural influence, or perhaps a fear of backlash from family or community?

Many Muslim women have advocated ardently for their right and choice to wear the hijab, burqa or modest covering of their choosing. I am not willing or able to define, explain or justify the diverse experiences of Muslim women around the world, but I do know choice is a complicated thing.

Human beings, no matter what their background, cannot make choices without being influenced by their own set of personal narratives, histories and experiences. Our social identities and communities play a significant role in how we relate to the world and the choices we make.

What is essential to the idea of freedom is that we are able to make choices, change our minds, go against our histories and traditions and adopt or reject parts of our identities without the fear of social, physical or emotional persecution. If there is a threat then there is no freedom of choice.

When women are being chased, harassed, threatened and fined for how they choose to present their bodies to the world, there is no freedom of choice. This is a violation of the very essence of an individual’s agency and women have stood too long in the violent battlefield of body politics.

It’s a long run effort, but if France really wants to combat extremism in its communities its government can start by addressing its role in creating and sustaining the socio-economic inequities that exist in the infamous immigrant suburbs.

Until then it’s “liberty, equality and fraternity” for all. Unless you’re a Muslim woman at the beach.

Maria Mulcahy is a 28-year-old teacher from St. John’s who has worked in education in Canada, Qatar and Yemen and Iraq. She is an advocate for the rights of women and children living in conflict zones and is currently a Master’s student in Human Security and Peace-building at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C.

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