“Women should be able to wear whatever they want” is manifestly true, but risks placing the recent ban out of context.
The protest at the French embassy in London, for example, is organised around the idea that “women have the right to WEAR WHATEVER THEY WANT” (their emphasis). The Twitterati too don’t seem to have tired of pictures of nuns bathing, Nigella Lawson and women in wetsuits. We can find countless examples of non-Muslim women wearing similar outfits to the beach because, of course, the ban has nothing to do with non-Muslim women. Frankly, Emma from Milton Keynes, I don’t care if you enjoy wearing your M&S burkini to the beach because your skin burns so quickly. This isn’t about you.
If you had any doubt about that, the wording of the ban should clarify its intended target. The ruling by mayor of Cannes states that “Beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation, when France and places of worship are currently the target of terrorist attacks, is liable to create risks of disrupting public order (crowds, scuffles etc) which it is necessary to prevent.”
Given all terrorism, in the popular imagination, is perpetrated by Muslims, then clearly the ban is an(other) attack on public displays of Muslim life in France. The focus, of our protests and our outrage, should be on the ever diminishing space for Muslims living in Europe to simply exist. The ban is not an isolated measure – it comes during a state of emergency, which has seen searches of Muslim homes without warrant, restrictions on where Muslims can live and work and the closure of mosques and businesses belonging to Muslims, all in the name of ‘security’.
It's racist, duh.
The disavowal of Islamophobia as a form of racism is an essential starting point for policies like the burkini ban. As Labour MP Robert Marshall-Andrews said in a speech in Parliament in 2005: “Our race and gender are what we are and should be protected. Our religion is what we choose to believe.” Ergo, it’s illegitimate to attack someone on the basis of their race, but religion is fair game. This argument relies on two erroneous assumptions: (1) that there is a scientific basis for race, and (2) that religion is always, everywhere a choice.
If we accept, as we should all do by now, that race has no scientific basis but refers to the way people are constructed as racial, then the fact that Muslims don’t share a biological backstory is irrelevant. Muslims are racialized as a bounded population (plus or minus a few converts) that is distinct from whiteness/Europeanness and that is differentially managed. Increasingly, populations previously described as “Turks in London” or “Algerians in Marseille” are now described as “Muslims in Europe” – e.g. Sadiq Khan referred to frequently as London’s first Muslim, rather than Pakistani, mayor.
The second assumption, that religion is a choice, is a particularly bad case of Eurocentrism. I recently asked my mum whether she would call herself a Muslim. Her response was “yeah, probably 25%”. She explained “I was born into a Muslim family, I guess… did I have a choice? No. Did I want a choice? Not really to be honest.” For my mum, and perhaps many outside of the Protestant tradition, religion isn’t just a set of beliefs you shop around for and sign up to. It’s ritual, it’s practices, it’s saying ‘Bismillah’ under your breath when you get in a car - it’s a lived experience which cannot be reduced to a set of abstract theological principles.
(Muslim) girls just wanna have fun.
It’s helpful to situate the incident on the beach in Nice with other forms of state violence against racialized subjects. Compare, for example, the heavy policing of water fights between black teenagers in London this summer and the proposed ban on a private pool party for Muslim women and children. Access to leisure, it seems, is increasingly policed along racial lines. Something to bear in mind if you go to Notting Hill Carnival in a few days…
Abstract debates on secularism and national identity shouldn’t happen through women’s bodies.
Women have often been the site of nationalist projects: conceived of as mothers of the nation, repositories of ethnic identity, transmitters of culture to future generations. Whether you’re being encouraged to have more child-citizens or discouraged from wearing “Western-style clothing”, debates over identity, citizenship and belonging all too frequently occur through the bodies of women. In this case, Muslim women are not invited to engage in those debates as political agents, but remain the subject of its interventions. When a particular model of femininity is presented as crucial to national identity, whether it’s the pious Muslim wife or the bikini-clad “liberal”, that’s patriarchy propping up the nation-state.