The Blog

Burkini Imperialism

In an ironic twist, some French lawmakers decided to learn from the Saudis and prosecute women for wearing inappropriate clothing on the beach - all the while going on about liberty, equality, fraternity and secularity.

This year has done a lot to undermine the socially-liberal societies in the West. The more conservative voices in media and politics have been repeating the same warning over and over again - ISIS and Islamisation pose an existential threat to "our" way of life. Ironically, from Trump in the US to Brexit and the rise of the European far-right, the real threat comes from a resurgence of intolerance and cultural imperialism.

The current debate around Burkini in France is a perfect example of that.

In an ironic twist, some French lawmakers decided to learn from the Saudis and prosecute women for wearing inappropriate clothing on the beach - all the while going on about liberty, equality, fraternity and secularity.

When stories of a policeman making a woman strip broke my Facebook feed, they looked surreal to the extent that I thought this was one of those social-experiment pranks. I admit I wasn't following the news too closely, but even if I was could you really expect this from a country that gave us feminists like Simone de Beauvoir and Coco Chanel? After all, it is telling that when Chanel wore trousers to the beach "out of modesty", she revolutionised fashion. When a Muslim woman wears a Burkini to the beach now for much the same reasons, she gets made to strip by a policeman and accused of being anti-French by a former president.

The official justification for this is that the Burkini is the clothing of radical Islam designed to oppress women and endanger the laïcité of the Republic. Since apparently, policing the way your citizens dress is not oppression in its own right. If anything the bans seem a bit hypocritical.


It is true that France has a history of banning certain religious attire, like the ban on any religious clothing in schools. In that case, there was a clear objective to the law - protecting the rights of all children to receive an equal and secular education at a state school. It could also be reasonably argued that a democratic state should try to prevent parents from indoctrinating their children, before they had the chance to formulate an independent world-view, or at least prevent religion from becoming a barrier for education.

Very similar rhetoric was used to justify the Burkini bans. But, these laws do not respect the principle of secularism and state impartiality, since they target the Burkini specifically. In other words it discriminates against a particular religious group. As one Mayor put it - "they must accept our way of life". As if in a free and democratic society there can be any one way of life. Last time I checked democracy was all about accommodating difference, not trying to force others in line with our own views.

Indeed, the real reason behind the Burkini ban is the inability of some members of the French society to shed cultural imperialism and embrace the Western social values of plurality, democracy and personal freedom. Even if, nothing can be further from the spirit of the French constitution with its insistence on "the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion". After all, when a Muslim woman was being told to take her Burkini off some beachgoers shouted "we are Catholic here". Not only have these people missed the memo that France has the highest Muslim population in the EU, but they are the real threat to France's republican values.

We are searching for ostentatious religious symbols have you seen a Burkini or a Muslim woman in a veil?


It is also worth noting that unlike other secular laws in France and in keeping with the good-old Saudi tradition, the Burkini ban is anti-women. For the first time since the 1920s US, a state which claims to be a Western democracy, has decided it can tell adult women what they can to wear to the beach. Guess what was one of the reasons - "publics morals".

In this light, the words of the French Minister of Women's Affairs that the Burkini is "hostile to diversity and female emancipation" sound hollow. The only thing these laws might help achieve is a self-conscious homogenised society, where people are scared to dress differently, think differently or express unpopular opinions. I, for one, see no clear difference between the French police telling a woman to take her clothes off and the Russian deputy Milonov attacking gay-activists - after all, in both cases the groups being attacked don't conform to the state's view of what a model citizen is.