Feminism and Free Choice in the Burkini Affair

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by Matt Sheedy

The image of a woman being forced to remove layers of clothing on a beach in Nice last month by four armed police sparked protest from around the world, and is the latest incident in France’s on-going struggle between so-called secular values and the limits of acceptable public ‘religion,’ which more often than not finds Muslim women as its main target. The garment in question, the burkini, was created in 2000 by Aheda Zanetti, an Australian designer who, in her own words, “wanted to change the Islamic symbol of a veil,” with something that “blended in with the Australian lifestyle.” Given France’s strict laws on veiling and heightened tensions in the wake of the Nice terror attack this past July, the burkini has stood out as a symbol for some who equate (female) Islamic forms of dress with women’s oppression and even terrorism.

While the French courts ultimately upheld a woman’s right to wear what she pleases (or, more accurately, denied the state the right to enforce such dress codes), several French mayors have vowed to keep the burkini ban in place under the pretence of “respecting good morals and secularism.” Just the other day, a local court in the French Island of Corsica upheld the bukini ban in the village of Sisco (in the commune of Bastia), which has seen violent confrontations in recent weeks between villagers and Muslim families.

What I’ve found most interesting in the wake of this incident is how feminist narratives (or, more accurately, liberal feminist narratives), roundly condemned the French government for policing women’s bodies, as seen with a protest outside the French embassy in London, with one prominent banner reading, “Islamophobia is not freedom.” Even J.K. Rowling weighed in on Twitter with the following tweet aimed at former French president and current leader of Les Républicains, Nicolas Sarkozy:jk-rowling-burkini

Whereas Western liberal feminists have often been divided when it comes to the veil, especially those who advocate strong forms of secularism or laïcité, with some viewing it as always imposed rather than (potentially) actively chosen, the image of a women being compelled by force to comply with so-called ‘secular’ law seems to have cut through the usual discourse surrounding the veil as a matter of either free choice or coercion by Muslim men, and linked it instead to a form of patriarchal governmentality—a term coined by Michel Foucault to describe modes of state control over the bodies of its citizens.

One of the more interesting articles that I came across on this affair is by Classics professor Sarah E. Bond, who writes in the conclusion of her piece in Forbes:

As the history of female dress codes in the West reveals, the restriction of what women can and cannot wear is an epic tale that has not yet concluded. Clothing remains an important way for women to express their own personal identity, but, as the burkini bans and ancient sumptuary laws reveal, the institution of dress codes are a time-honored means of using law and order to express an idealized, communal identity. Amid all the debate about what women should or shouldn’t wear, we should perhaps consider what Prof. Seale noted as we ended our conversation: “Let’s keep in mind that it is no more freeing to tell a woman what she can wear than to tell her what she can’t.”

Throughout her article, Bond draws on a number of historical examples in order to trace a brief history of this mode of governmentality. She begins by remarking how odd the burkini affair must seem to Italians and others who are use to seeing nuns wearing a habit on the beach, and goes on to cite on a number of historical examples of similar restrictions on women’s dress, which she sees “as a means of controlling a community’s political message.” From magistrates known as “controllers of women” in ancient Sparta who levied fines against improperly dressed women and removed clothing at their will, to Roman laws under the Justinianic Code, which made it a lesser legal offense to sexually assault a women dressed in the garb of a lower social station, to various European laws throughout the middle ages, there is a long history, Bond reminds us, of policing women’s dress.

I am entirely sympathetic to this argument and am personally encouraged that the photograph from Nice has helped to complicate long standing Western narratives equating the veil with mere oppression, as the work of Leila Ahmed and many others have demonstrated since the publication of her seminal work Women and Gender in Islam (1992). Moreover, I am encouraged by how this reframing has helped to focus attention on a more viable mode of analysis—namely, governmentality through patriarchal domination—than the all-too-common and always racialized appeal to some essential notion of ‘Islam’ as a default explanation whenever the veil is in question. Nevertheless, the old liberal chestnut of “freedom of choice” continues to dominate the conversation where, it would seem, the woman on the beach in Nice has become sympathetic mainly because she is seen as a women being coerced by European men and not because she represents a ‘Muslim’ body whose imagined otherness is the product of a long history of discourse pitting Islam against the West.

Taking Bond’s article as an example, the brief history that she draws upon to illustrate her point unwittingly reproduces a form of modernization theory, which understands certain cultures or ‘civilizations’ to be more advanced than others based on things like economic development, modes of governance, and cultural expression. All of Bond’s examples come from the ancient and medieval world, which I take as an attempt to show a continuity of patriarchal governmentality, from ancient Greece and Rome to modern-day France. Her analogy between nuns in habits and the burkini, however, which is illustrated with an image of Polish nuns playing on a beach in Rio in 2013 (pictured below), suggests a one-to-one comparison between a small minority of women who follow a strict code of conduct, and do not tend to carry an overly negative symbolic valence in the West, with a much larger percentage of women whose modes of dress, while highly varied in appearance and meaning, carry a predominantly negative valence in Europe and North America. Unlike nuns, Muslim women who wear the veil are either accommodated or tolerated under freedom of expression, or reviled as being contrary to secular values, the perpetuation of cultural ‘backwardness,’ and even terrorism.

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While it may be overly optimistic to expect mainstream narratives to offer the kind of analysis on veiling and representations of Islam that have come out of more careful scholarship, it is nonetheless important to consider how this attempt to humanize women who veil and draw attention to modes of patriarchal governmentality continues to obscure complex Muslim identities and, in the process, reproduces culturalist ideas of otherness by failing to reflect upon how Muslim women’s bodies symbolize a much larger kettle of fish.

Matt Sheedy Ph.D lectures in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

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