Why you should think twice before making up your mind about the burkini
Images depicting police in French municipalities enforcing a ban on the burkini have flooded the mainstream news outlets and social media feeds across the world last month. The issue has been sensationalized by the media to the point where the French are now considered by some to be misogynistic, bigoted and illiberal. However, I think that most of the discussions surrounding the burkini have only scratched the mere surface of the issue.
Let’s start off with a fundamental normative idea: no one should force anyone else to wear anything they don’t want to. If we agree on this, then we should also agree to apply this concept consistently and equally to both sides of the moral equation.
As such, the French police have no right to tell women what to wear—whether it’s a law or not. On the other side, religious texts written from a male perspective also have no right to tell women what to wear or to criminalize their bodies. Encouraging women to cover up because men are unable to control their sexual desires is emphasized in Islamic texts.
For example, a verse from the Quran (24:31) says that women should conceal their entire bodies and should only reveal themselves to their husband or close family members, according to translations provided by clearquran.com.
These verses, among others, promote placing the blame on women who are the victims of sexual harassment and rape, rather than on men who are saturated with patriarchal values—’she should have just covered up.’ The issue of blaming women for their own sexual harassment does exist in the Middle East and South Asia as a result, and is a major factor in explaining why a significant number of Muslim women chose to wear the veil. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
“If you take uncovered meat and put it on the street, on the pavement, in a garden, in a park or in the backyard, without a cover and the cats eat it, is it the fault of the cat or the uncovered meat?” said Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali, a religious leader based out of Australia, in an excerpt quoted by The Guardian back in 2006. “The uncovered meat is the problem,” he added, further lamenting his point of view.
This cloud of fear that religious institutions have been creating for hundreds of years in Islamic countries is the antithesis of women’s empowerment and freedom of choice. If women wear the hijab, the niqab or even the burkini because they would otherwise face punishment, how can we view wearing these garments as a choice made freely, and not simply a response to coercion?
The liberal critique of the burkini ban ignores the religious and historical aspect of this issue. It doesn’t highlight the fact that the burkni by and large disempowers women, disabling them from taking full control of their bodies.
Those who are for the ban are seen as bigots opposed to immigration by mainstream media. This disallows healthy and panoramic discussions about these issues, and creates smokescreens to prevent people from thinking more deeply about the issue, which often prevents discussion about the issue’s root causes, whether it’s why France chooses to ban the burkini, or the historical and religious contexts of such garments.