This summer France was in turmoil about, of all things, a bathing suit. A few Muslim women, constrained by their religion to cover their bodies, appeared on public beaches in so-called burkinis – garments with a striking resemblance to wetsuits. When other beachgoers complained, several rightwing mayors responded by banning burkinis and head-coverings on public beaches.
Paradoxically, while some insist the ban represents the principle that religion should be strictly separated from civil life, bewigged Jewish women and Catholic nuns in habits and head-coverings go about their business on French streets, unremarked.
For many Muslim women, the burkini actually represents freedom, an opportunity to enjoy the beach and the sea while still respecting their religion. But islamophobes on the right, joined by some French feminists, see the garment as a symbol of oppression, imposed on Muslim women by a misogynistic Muslim culture. The French Prime Minister agreed, saying that the burkini represents a culture that devalues and enslaves women.
Others go even further, seeing the burkini as a stark refusal to “integrate” in French culture, or even as a provocation. In late August the French high court ruled against the ban, and eventually the local bans were rescinded. But the controversy rages on.
After a photo of four armed police officers surrounding a seated woman as she takes off her head-covering went viral, many feminist organizations rallied to defend a woman’s freedom to wear what she wants. Meanwhile, Nicolas Sarkozy, former President of France who is running again, declared that “ostentatious” religious symbols should be banned from all public places.
Personally, I find this debate puzzling, since individual liberty of expression is sacred here - protected by our First Constitutional Amendment – and clothing has long been considered a medium of self-expression. Historically, American women’s struggle for freedom has always involved less clothing, not more.
In Victorian times, a woman’s ankle was scandalous. In the 1920s, women wore knee-length woolen bathing-suits. And modern day women fight to breast-feed in public. You might say American women have asserted their right to uncover their bodies as they see fit. And this too is paradoxical, given charges of exploitation of the female body in entertainment and advertising.
I guess the common thread here across attitudes, and even across cultures, is the idea that the only person with the right to determine the exposure of a woman’s body and the cloth that covers it – should be the woman herself.