Thursday, August 25, 2016
We’ll Take Nun of That!
It just may be one of the most inane issues of this purported “clash of civilizations,” the battle against the burkini, that conservative bathing suit (pictured below) favored by faithful Muslim women reflecting their belief in their religious mandate to modesty. They love the beach too and often bring their children to enjoy surfside magic. Even this modest attire is seen by some clerics as “showing too much,” but for Muslim women beach-goers seeking modesty – and perhaps as easier way to avoid sunburn and skin cancer – it’s the suit that suits.
France and Belgium, both with sizeable Muslim populations, have been slammed of late, between terrorist (ISIS-led/inspired) attacks and swarms of Syrian asylum-seekers escaping one of the most brutal conflict on earth. To say that there is a growing schism between traditional French and Belgian “white Christian” residents and the waves of new emigres from the Middle East is an under-statement of alarming proportions. There are now laws in both nations, as well as in several other European countries, that have effectively banned some of the most obvious symbols of Islam, particularly as it may relate to the female dress code.
Let’s start with the fact that France and many of its European neighbors have gone a long way to reinforce the secular nature of their respective societies. While there is freedom of religion in these countries, “The French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools bans wearing conspicuous religious symbols in French public (i.e. government operated) primary and secondary schools. The law is an amendment to the French Code of Education that expands principles founded in existing French law, especially the constitutional requirement of laïcité: the separation of state and religious activities…
“The law does not mention any particular symbol, and thus bans all Christian (veil, signs), Muslim (veil, signs), Sikh (turban, signs) Jewish and other religions' signs. It is however considered by many to specifically target the wearing of headscarves (a khimar, considered by most Muslims to be an obligatory article of faith as part of hijab [‘modesty’]) by Muslim schoolgirls. For this reason, it is occasionally referred to as the French headscarf ban in the foreign press.” Wikipedia.
For those willing to admit their intentions, the recent expansion of these laws seems to have been initially directed particularly at the headscarf and the veil, and less everything else. We’d have a bit of trouble enforcing such a ban here in the United States given the proscriptions against religious discrimination in our First Amendment. But apparently, that is not an issue in France.
While most Muslims see modesty as an important mandate for women, modern French society sees the all these religious requirements imposed on women and not men as violative of the basic equality of men and women, a feeling actually shared by some of more Westernized Muslim women. “A number of Islamic feminists see the wearing of the headscarf, and particularly of the full-face veil such as the niqāb, as oppressive of women. The influential French activist and politician Fadela Amara has thus stated: ‘The veil is the visible symbol of the subjugation of women, and therefore has no place in the mixed, secular spaces of France's public school system.’” Wikipedia. The infamous full face/body covering burka is worn more by mature Muslim women and not schoolgirls.
But when it does come down to modest Muslim clothing for women in public, nothing seems to have drawn the public wrath like that burkini. And the subtlety fades when the issue is openly discussed, even within the French judicial system. “Fifteen communities on the French Riviera have banned burkinis, a kind of swimwear worn by women who want to keep their body covered while going for a dip in the sea.
“Judges have ruled that the burkini bans are ‘necessary, appropriate and proportionate,’ as the outfit may be viewed as a ‘provocation exacerbating tensions’ at a time when France has suffered a spate of attacks carried out by Islamist extremists.
“On [August 23rd], images emerged of a woman on a beach in Nice as she is confronted by four armed police officers. In the pictures, she is wearing a clothing item that covers her head, but is not wearing a burkini. Nevertheless, while the officers stand around her, she removes the piece of clothing, and the officers write her a ticket.
In the nearby town of Cannes, Agence France-Presse saw the ticket of another woman who was fined for wearing a burkini on [August 23rd]. She was identified by her first name, Siam, and is 34 years old. Her ticket gave the reason for the fine as the failure to wear ‘an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.’” The Washington Post, August 24th. The fines? Between 38 and 150 euros ($43/$167) a pop, depending on where you are.
Siam’s saga continues: “Witnesses described a scene of humiliation as nearby beachgoers shouted their support for the police officers, and told the woman ‘to go home,’ while her children sobbed, the AFP reported.
“French Prime Minister Manuel Valls told the newspaper La Provence in an interview last week that the burkini reflects a worldview based on "the enslavement of women," and that sees women as ‘impure and that they should therefore be totally covered… That is not compatible with the values of France,’ Valls said.
“Siam and her family have reportedly been French citizens for at least three generations. Siam has worked as a flight attendant in France. Siam told the Daily Mail that the clothing makes her feel comfortable and protected her from the sun… For her part, Siam told the Daily Mail: ‘Today we are not allowed on the beach. Tomorrow, the street? Tomorrow, we'll be forbidden from practicing our religion at all?’
“Others likened the burkini ban to measures taken by totalitarian or theocratic regimes that are antithetical to France's tradition of ‘liberty and fraternity.’ There was a palpable sense on social media that while some in the West saw the burkini bans as a rejection of such regimes as Saudi Arabia's that enforce morality codes, others saw it as the other side of the same coin.” The Post. Some have taken a more proactive stand.
French businessman, Rachid Nekkaz, has taken to paying those fines, as to all of those Muslim clothing/symbol bans, for any woman who asks. “In 2009, the French government under Nicolas Sarkozy moved to ban full-face veils; Sarkozy himself called the burqa (which was not widely worn in France) a symbol of ‘debasement’ that was ‘not welcome’ in the country. Nekkaz quickly became one of the most vocal opponents of the proposed law. In 2010, he announced that he was setting up a fund of 1 million euros that he would use to pay any fines given to women who wore the veil.
“As Nekkaz puts it, the fund's aim was ‘to neutralize this profoundly liberty-threatening law's application on the streets,’ and he soon moved its scope beyond France's borders. He says he has now paid for 1,165 fines in France, 268 in Belgium, two in the Netherlands and one Switzerland.” The Washington Post, August 23rd. $278,000 to date.
Others are also bit more open-minded. How about the title of this article in the 8/25 Washington Post: “As France bans burkinis, Canada and Scotland let cops wear hijabs.” But still others want stricter bans: “In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives want a partial ban on the niqab, or face veil, while in Austria right-wing politicians have called for a ban on the burqa, which covers the face and body. In Switzerland there are calls for a popular vote on a ban on the burqa.” Reuters, August 25th.
To emphasize that this trend towards banning religious symbols and clothing was primarily directed at Muslim women, a Muslim cleric quickly tweeted a photograph of Catholic nuns frolicking in the ocean (very much like the photograph above left)… in their habits. Many others joined this Twitter deluge with their own comparisons of nuns’ habits and various forms of Muslim clothing. But is this just another form of racism? What are your thoughts?
I’m Peter Dekom, and testing our constitutional values and our stated belief in freedom of religion are pretty easy values to articulate… when everything goes just the way you want it to go… but create hypocrisy if you change the rules when things go in a different direction.