While the French secularisation policy of laïcité has been, of late, seen as an attack on Islam, it was, in fact, enshrined into French law in 1905 following a feud with the Catholic Church. In recent years this policy has been applied to France’s Muslim population, who are being brought into line with denizens of other faiths.
On 1 July 2014, the European Court of Human Rights upheld France’s controversial ban on the wearing of full-faced veils or burqas in public places, as well as the wearing of other overt religious symbols. As such, in this context, the burkini qualifies as such a religious symbol, worn on public beaches, and is accordingly against the law. In answer to the question of whether it is permissible for a Muslim man to go to unisex swimming areas, al-islam.org replies that he should refrain from coming into contact with uncovered people. Most Muslim men in European countries do not refrain from visiting beaches. However, if their wives do so, they wear burkinis to stay within the boundaries of their religion.
The banning of burkinis by the Mayor of Cannes comes in the wake of the Islamist fundamentalist terrorist attack on Bastille Day in Nice, in which 84 were killed, closely followed by the murder of two priests. While the Mayor is being lambasted for his claim that the burkini is a ‘symbol of Islamist extremism’, his detractors seem lacking in clarity. In fact, according to the Economist, many moderate Muslim leaders support the ban as a measure against fundamentalism.
Moreover, the Quran does not specify that a burqa rather than a hijab and long clothing must be worn, and, as such, burqas could be seen as the product of an extreme interpretation of Islam. Therefore, it would seem that the Mayor of Cannes has more credence than is being accredited to him.
Chapter 24:30, of the Quran states that it is not good for men to look with lust at women. As interpreted by al-islam.org, this is a command to Muslim men to wear a metaphorical hijab of the eyes, by refraining from ogling women. The next verse of the Quran repeats the exact same instructions for women, referring to the same hijab of the eyes as before. Thereafter, the dresscode for women is described as not displaying ‘their beauty except what is apparent’.
The Bible, the more western model, also offers commands on how women should present themselves. In Corinthians, Paul writes that women are provided with long hair as a covering for themselves, and that they should wear cloth on their heads as a sign of their submission to their husbands. The verse Matthew 5:27-8, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart”, is parallel to the command to Muslim men not to gaze lustfully on women.
The commands of the Bible and the Quran on this issue are very similar. Yet, while it is extremely uncommon for any practising Christian women to cover their heads in Mass or church, let alone in everyday life, many Muslim women don burqas. It is perhaps, that the purpose of a burkini is to protect a woman from indecency, yet it is only indecency if a man looks on her lustfully, which he is forbidden to do as per the Quran. As such, it seems that the woman is made responsible for any male action.
Islam is primarily Middle-Eastern in origin, and is most widely practised in hot climates. As such, it is not surprising that women would have traditionally covered their heads as a purely practical precaution against the heat of the sun. The specification in the Quran of making sure a woman’s neck and ears are covered also ties into this logic. Similarly, the practical necessity of Kalansuwa, Turbans, Imamah and Keffiyeh, the male equivalents, is apparent.
However, in more Western climates, such as that of France, these precautions are unnecessary. While male head coverings are thus largely discarded by Muslim men living in European countries, the same is not true of female head coverings. Indeed, barenakedislam.com states that many Muslim men do not even wear head coverings in cosmopolitan centres of the Muslim world, where they are seen as passe. And yet, even among many Muslims in European cities, burqas are not deemed old-fashioned. This discrepancy seems to suggest that Muslim men have been given a choice regarding traditional and religious clothing, while women have not.
Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that burqas are damaging to women’s health. A study carried out by King Fahd University Hospital found that women who observed the full burqa were startlingly deficient in Vitamin D due to lack of exposure to the sun. In Jordan, for instance, 83% of women wearing burqas were found to be deficient during the summer as compared to only 18% of men. This leads to any children begotten by that woman being deficient in Vitamin D and consequently suffering from stunted growth, and significantly increases the risk of rickets and osteomalacia in women.
Furthermore, an immigrant Muslim woman may need on average 20 – 30 times more sun exposure than a European woman in order to gain the same amount of Vitamin D, as her skin may have become used to blocking the sun. As such, it follows that the wearing of burkinis, whose entire purpose is to cover as much skin as possible, would also prevent the woman’s body from benefitting from the ample supply of Vitamin D otherwise available at beaches like Cannes.
In commenting on such issues, one runs the risk of being accused of enforcing Westernisation on everyone, and, of course, this is not desirable. It is true that the West has not always got it right. The industry which reifies women, presenting them scantily-clad in male-oriented advertising campaigns is also a dictation to women, albeit a less direct one. It is the same Western viewpoint which presents Beyonce as a feminist icon, as she supposedly ‘owns’ her sexuality.
One of the many articles abounding Facebook on the burkini issue disagrees with the ban, on the basis that “anyone dictating what women can and cannot wear is oppression”. The profound irony of this statement is apparently lost on its author. Perhaps, on the other hand, it touches on the wider issue of the need to change attitudes towards women in both cultures.
In the 21st century, women should be valued on more than merely their bodies, and this should mean that they should be neither obliged to cover it up, nor to flaunt or use it as a source of ‘empowerment’. Until such a time comes about, however, the ban on burkinis is a move towards, not only the freedom of female bodies, but also towards the changing of intercultural attitudes regarding women.