When Maximilien Robespierre – 18th century France’s answer to Jeremy Corbyn – first coined the phrase “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” during the French Revolution, I doubt he foresaw it being used to justify the state legislating on what a Muslim woman, or any woman for that matter, can and can’t wear three centuries later.
Though Robespierre is hardly the poster boy for rationality, once upon a time he did believe in building a ‘socially responsible state’ (you know, before he settled on executing monarchs instead). But to my mind, there are few things more socially irresponsible than populist stunts like the Burkini ban, given the high tide of suspicion and distrust that has consumed France, and Europe with it.
Before I’m dismissed as a terror apologist, or better yet as a Francophobe, I’d like to point out that I don’t oppose the countries ban on the full Niqab burqa. Though I don’t think blanket bans are a sensible or effective method of eradicating anything – be it this, illegal drugs or sugary drinks – I understand that any garment that covers everything but the eyes could be a security risk, and, to a lesser extent, that some people may find such items intimidating.
But there is nothing remotely obstructive or offensive about the Burkini. Nor are they ‘provocative’, as claimed by that has-been French comedian, I mean President, Nicholas Sarkozy.
From the pictures splashed all over the internet, which I’m sure did wonders to alleviate the poor woman’s humiliation, the felonious aqua blue outfit looked like nothing more than a headscarf, kaftan and leggings. In fact, if not for all the publicity Marks and Spencer’s creation of the Burkini generated back in May, I’d be just as likely to assume that this was a slightly chilly Western woman who was having a bit of a crap hair day.
If the French police want to make examples of hard-line Islamists, as they are perfectly entitled to do in light of the year they’ve had, they might want to consider focusing on the actual terrorists first. Had the authorities gone after that minority with as much vigour as they have votes and headlines in the months following Charlie Hebdo, Paris and Nice, they would’ve done a lot of good.
Petty laws like this are totally counterproductive. Far from re-establishing the French police’s no-nonsense, crime busting credentials, all it has done is expose the fact that they haven’t a clue where to start in the fight against extremism.
But as appalling as the actions of the policeman were, we should see this as a time to celebrate, not point fingers. The demand for Burkini’s among Muslim women living in the West should be welcomed by us all (not least by M&S’s shareholders). They are adapting their culture and their religious customs to fit our expectations: our obsession with beach side holidays, and our readiness to shed clothes the second the temperature gets above 20 degrees.
The trend is not symptomatic of an oppressive or backward religion (FGM and forced marriages are much more pressing examples of that), but of the genuine attempts at social integration made by many Muslim communities.
So if your reading this shaking your head, doubting the significance of the Burkini, I’d like you to spare a thought for the women in ultra conservative Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, who can’t legally drive to the beach or visit one unaccompanied by a male relative, let alone roll up their Hijabs and go for a paddle.
While it may seem an inconspicuous example, this innovation, though admirable and controversial in equal measure, has reassured me that Islam is compatible with liberty and with Western ways of life. The only incompatibility exposed by this row is the French people’s preservation of freedom and the French authorities’ determination to stifle it. The country’s values of liberty, equality and fraternity should apply to all its citizens; no ifs, no buts.