Understanding France’s Burkini Ban

France’s burkini ban on the beaches of Cannes has many people shocked, as they fail to understand how a secular democratic country can stoop to the authoritarian practices of policing women’s clothing.

My friend the writer Maniza Naqvi offered a comment from art historian James Hargrove that attempts to deconstruct the ban, and offer some context for it. I thought it was brilliant and am reproducing it here (formatting is mine).

…I love the cultural variety manifested in aesthetic form, from fashion to architecture and everything in between. Taking it all in is part of the pleasure of perambulating in the public spaces of a cosmopolitan society. If a woman in a burkini is content to share the same space as a woman (or man) in a thong, then who are the thong-wearers to object? It could be argued that the woman in a burkini is holding on to a last shred of that vanishing aspect of civilization, a sense of decorum or dignity in appearance and behaviour in a public space.

That said, cultural, historical, political context is everything. Fashion, at least in Europe, and especially in France, has long been politicized. We have abundant historical record on this. The crucible occurred with the French Revolution, in which, clothing and fashion played a considerable symbolic role. Some elements of sartorial Modernism emerge in this period due to legislation forbidding various kinds of attire – usually things associated with systems of social and class differentiation from the Ancien Régime.

Much of this legislation would be overturned in the 19th century, but the spirit and ideals of the laws remained in some spheres, especially in politics. Look at the socialist mayor of Paris who chafes, in the name of liberty and freedom, at the outward appearances of social and class difference in various sectors of the city.

Then add to this two other things: France is, officially, a secular state. It is not like the US, which thinks it is a secular state because it is open to all religions and officially proffers none. Rather, in France, the trappings and ideals of religion (any religion) and the support of any religion, are outlawed in official circumstances.

This comes straight from the Revolution in which religion, especially the Catholic Church, was perceived to be a powerful and manipulative force in the upholding of social and political structures from the pre-Revolutionary period – structures that the Revolutionary leaders believed to be oppressive to freedom and liberty for the bulk of the population. In France, one is free to do what they like until they enter government space (occupy a government position or attend a government school, for example.) At that point, the secularism of the French constitution must be upheld.

This has posed problems, namely school pupils wanting to wear a Crucifix or a Star of David on a necklace are some of the more recent ones. Second, since King Louis XIV, at the latest, the government of France has promoted (and actively enforced) very distinct ideas of culture, specifically French culture. The aim was to unify a large and diverse nation, and to bring social cohesion that unites a community.

I repeat, it was enforced and it was rigid. 370+ years later, the way French society was restructured in the 17th century is now an ingrained part of French ideas of culture and nation – from which stems part of France’s problem with integrating those who come from elsewhere. Anyone CAN become French, but they also MUST become French.

The Anglo-Celtic notion of multi-culturalism is not part of who the French are and they see it as the road to cultural and social disaster. From a British perspective, this was/is cultural and political tyranny. From

Which one of these is illegal in France?


a French, and indeed Spanish, Italian, Austrian, Polish, and Russian perspective, the British (and their American offspring), exemplify the cult of individualism over community – most recently dramatically played out with the Brexit vote.

Basically, these are two very different ideas of society, freedom, the individual, and the community. I tend to prefer the British perspective (for the same reasons you probably do – it’s what we grew up with), but I understand the historical and cultural reasons for difference elsewhere and I often find myself sympathizing with the communal perspective of continental Europeans.

Now, enter the burka and burkini. These are not just styles of clothing, they are religious and political, at least from a French perspective. From a French perspective, they are a restatement of the role fashion plays as a symbol of subjugation rather than freedom. For the people of France (who have never been unified in support of the government’s definition of La France), this is messy and there is probably a wide range of opinions.

For the government, however, it actually borders on a constitutional crisis, no small thing.

This is possibly the most elegant attempt to understand the ban, if not defend it, that I have seen so far.

Me, I’m wondering if French feminists will descend on the beaches of Cannes wearing burkinis in support and solidarity of their Muslim sisters. But I’m not holding my breath.

And I can’t wait to see the mountain of porn the burkini ban and the actions of the police officers is going to inspire. Burly uniformed men forcing a cowering Muslim woman to take her clothes off – some people might find that an absolute turn-on.

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