The ban on burkinis in some French towns, introduced in August, continues to cause controversy. Photos of armed police forcing a Muslim woman to remove her burkini on a beach caused justified anger around the world.
Despite widespread support for the ban from many prominent politicians – including the prime minister Manuel Valls and former president Sarkozy – the ban was quickly overturned by Frances highest court in late August with most towns revoking the ban. Some however are still continuing, a court in Corsica has upheld the ban for reasons of “public safety” after a confrontation involving a Muslim family ended with a racist mob attempting to march through a predominantly North African area.
Proponents of the ban have justified it variously as a hygiene matter, a security measure or a measure to “liberate” Muslim women – it is hard to pick which excuse is more ridiculous. The reality is that the ban is yet another islamophobic attack in the same vein as other French bans on the full face veil and bans on wearing religious symbols in schools. While other minorities have been affected by these bans, for example a Sikh student who was banned from wearing a turban in school, the simple reality as that these laws specifically target Muslims.
The net effect of these laws is far from liberating for Muslim women, those who choose to wear the veil find themselves barred from the public sphere while for the minuscule number who have been coerced or forced to wear the veil it is hard to imagine that a ban will result in the person forcing them to simply turn around and say wear what you want so. In fact the burkini, a name coined as a combination of burka and bikini, has much more in common with the bikini than the burka. It originated in Australia in the early 2000’s when a Libyan born fashion designer created one for her niece as a more comfortable option when participating in school sports. Far from the oppressive caricature painted by the racist right the whole purpose of the garment is to allow Muslim women to participate more easily in western society while still preserving their faith.
Of course theses bans didn’t arise in a vacuum nor are they a consequence of some innate racist tendency in French people. The bans are particularly nasty legacy of French imperialism – particularly in predominantly Muslim countries in North Africa such as Tunisia and Algeria. To justify French rule, and the violence employed to maintain it, it was necessary to deamonise Muslims. This deamonisation and “othering” of Muslims in France continues at a state level and is evident in everything from housing through to education and health care.
As socialists we must oppose any attempts to control women, there is no fundamental difference between the Saudi state forcing women to wear veils and the French state forcing women to remove burkinis. We also know that to truly defeat racism we need to challenge the ruling class who use it to keep us divided, weather that is through the state and its laws or through the media. It is only by uniting the struggles of all oppressed groups that we can win a world where people are free live – and dress – as they themselves wish.