As an American, I take for granted that people can wear pretty much whatever they like. If you spend some time walking the streets of any major US city, and you’re bound to see men dressed in drag, prostitutes in miniskirts and six-inch heels, and someone in full Muppet-style costume. Short of indecent exposure, Americans are basically free to express themselves through their attire, including displays of religious affiliation.
We wear crosses around our necks, yarmulkes on our heads, and yes, even burqas concealing us from head to toe. Our courts have upheld the right of individuals to adapt their appearances outside the military’s strict standard when these symbols of religion won’t hinder our ability to serve, and Congress has passed legislation that allows members of the armed forces “to wear religious apparel in a ‘neat and conservative’ manner.”
Yet in Europe, a continent that prides itself on being the bedrock of democracy and liberalism, towns, cities, and even Europe’s highest court are restricting personal freedoms out of fear and suspicion. France banned headscarves at public schools back in 2004 and become the first European country to ban the burqa in 2010, imposing a penalty of 150 euros plus instruction in citizenship for offenders. Not long afterward, Belgium banned the full-face veil, towns and cities in Spain have banned them in some public places including public markets and libraries, and a recent court ruling in Germany prohibits the niqab in public schools.
Some have argued the Islamic veil poses a security risk as it obscures an individual’s face. Some purport that it inhibits integration into European society. Some say it stands in the way of national ideals of “liberty, fraternity, and equality,” or it seeks to challenge these values in a subversive way. Yet others insist that the more modest dress of Muslim women oppresses them, with French Prime Minister referring to the burkini as a means of “enslavement.”
Does anyone else find it ironic that just as we’re celebrating the 70th anniversary of the bikini, beach attire once considered so scandalous that women were ticketed and thrown off public beaches for wearing them, we’re hearing some like former French president Nicolas Sarkozy describe the burkini as “provocative”?
A police officer issuing a woman a ticket for wearing a bikini on a beach at Rimini, Italy, in 1957.
Source: NY Times. ullstein bild, via Akg Images
This seems like a pretty clear case of Islamophobia. If a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman like myself were to walk onto a French beach wearing a full-body rash guard and pull on a big hat or hood to shield myself from the sun, I doubt I’d be walking off the beach with a fine. Plus, despite the fact that French officials seem to view the burkini as an affront to French values, modesty is neither uniquely Islamic nor antagonistic. Any little old Italian grandma will tell you that.
But what’s most offensive about France’s short-lived burkini ban and Europe’s long-term backlash against women in traditional Islamic attire is the implication that these women are being elevated via the bans—that predominantly male, Christian law-makers should have the right to tell women to undress.
But when Muslim women take part in the dialogue about their attire, their arguments are much more nuanced, acknowledging religion, tradition, feminism, and politics. Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan politician, women’s rights activist, and author of The Favored Daughter: One Woman’s Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future, writes:
I’d grown up seeing my mother wear the burqa, but I felt as though it was merely something of her generation and that it was a cultural tradition that was slowly dying out. I had never felt any need nor had been asked by my family to conform to it. I saw myself as part of a new generation of Afghan women, and the burqa’s traditions didn’t represent my ambitions, for myself or my country. Unlike my mother, I had an education, one that I was eager to expand upon. I had opportunities and freedoms. One of them was the freedom to choose whether or not to wear a burqa—and I chose not to.
It wasn’t that I had, or have, a particular problem with burqas. They are traditional and can offer women some degree of protection in our society. Women all over the world must occasionally deal with unwanted attention from men and for some women, wearing a burqa can be a way of avoiding that. But what I object to is that someone can impose a decision about what to wear. How would women in the West react to a government-enforced policy that made them wear miniskirts from the onset of puberty? Islamic and cultural ideas of modesty are strong in Afghan society, but they are not so strong that a woman must, by virtue of her gender, be hidden beneath a blue sack. Covering the hair with a head-scarf is enough to satisfy the Islamic rule of being modest before God [emphasis my own].
Ironically, when Koofi asked rhetorically how western women would feel about a mandate to wear miniskirts, she is couldn’t have known that a country like France would be having women undress on the beach in 2016.
Just as Koofi fought against the Taliban’s insistence that a burqa was the only satisfactory attire for Afghan women, we too should consider the implications of national laws banning a woman’s right to modesty. Did you know that only a fraction of a percent of French women wear burqas, something like 2,000 women in a country of 5 million Muslims? Did you know that some experts say there are actually more French women donning burqas today than when the law was passed, actually inspired by it? And sales of the burkini have spiked since the controversy in France? Even celebrities like Nigella Lawson have gotten in on the trend, citing protection from the sun as her justification for covering up.
Something has gone seriously amiss when politicians believe they’re safeguarding their country by banning women’s clothing. You can’t ask women to undress and expect positive results. America is proof that a separation of church and state doesn’t require individuals to leave all signs of their religious beliefs at home.