What is loose, comes in many splendid colours, covers the body and has the French government in a twist? Answer: The burkini. Five French towns have waded into a row by banning the full-body swimsuit loved by many Muslim women. To hear the arguments ranged against it would be to believe it is a lethal weapon (wrapped up in a lot of modesty): It stands accused of bad morals, poor hygiene, being a security risk and no less than the uniform of “extremist Islamism”. The French prime minister has stoutly defended the ban by calling the burkini a “symbol of enslavement of women”, swelling the ranks of brave men fighting to protect women’s rights — by telling them what not to wear.
Across the world, Islamophobia has matched steps with the rise of Islamist terror, which has spectacularly stalked the country. But the fuss over a garment has highlighted France’s inability to expand its idea of itself to include the perspectives of other cultures. It shows up the limits of French nationalism — premised on rationalism and a rigid separation between religion and the state — and especially its insistence on ramming down a single idea of freedom, culture and style. In this worldview, a Muslim woman in a hijab and long pants strolling down the “beaches of (Brigitte) Bardot” is a threat to public order and reason. This is the shriek of paranoia, disguised as a national security drill.
Could the argument against the burqa, and the “locking away of women’s bodies”, be a feminist one? True, there is much that is problematic about religious suspicion of women’s bodies. But the ban on the burkini is tone-deaf to the many voices of real, living women — and their complicated calibration of choice, comfort and tradition. By rushing in to yank the burkini off the beach, the French government has ended up excluding a large number of Muslim women from a public space. At the least, let it not do so in the name of liberty.