On the postcard that I forced my daughter to write to her grandmother last weekend was a vintage photo of the beachfront where we were staying. My child peered at the picture, grainy black and white, with its stiffly-smiling, fully-dressed ocean-goers.
“Why are they wearing so many clothes?” she pondered. “Aren’t they hot?”
“Well, monkey,” I replied all-knowingly, “people covered up a bit more in those days.”
These days, too?
You might have caught a bit of the volleyball in the Rio Olympics. Probably my favourite sport, having tinkered with it passably through college. It would appear Donald Trump is partial, too, to a bit of volleyball (at least, when the women are playing).
I am lucky enough to have never met Mr Trump, but I am guessing that he would have huffed and puffed (for different reasons) had he seen the Egypt-Germany beach-volley match. This photo, by British photojournalist Lucy Nicholson had much Twitter-ink spilling:
The question of religion and dresscode is a frequent bone of contention, especially in countries with large migrant communities of different faiths, or where – such as France – there are restrictions on the wearing of religious symbols in public places.
Leaving the Olympics to one side (and Donald Trump – permanently, if possible) let’s return to our starting point: the seaside. On 13 August in Corsica, a violent quarrel broke out on a beach, originally believed (but since refuted) to be over a “burkini” (a loose-fitting body bathing suit worn by Muslim women).
Immediately afterwards, some Mayors in mainland France banned the wearing of burkini on their beaches. Some claim “hygiene” reasons, others “an incompatibility with French way of life”; others still linking the burkini to a radicalisation of the Muslim faith – and oppression of women. If President Hollande has so far steered clear of commenting, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls recently refused to condemn the Mayors:
I support those Mayors who have taken this decision, if it is taken to promote community life, and without political motivation (…) the idea that a woman is immodest and should be covered does not fit with the values of the [French] Republic
But the bans have, in turn, caused an outcry in France – denounced as another populist attack on France’s Muslims, or the right of any woman to choose how to dress.
This debate has been picked up elsewhere, too. In the view of British Muslim feminist Huda Jawad for example, the ban is nothing less than “misogynistic”:
What is it about French secularism’s blindspot to its own racism and misogyny? The obsession to the point of fetishism with Muslim women’s mode of dress and covering curtails the basic of human rights – that of self-determination and freedom of expression (…) instead of extending the hand of fraternité, [Mayors] are excluding Muslims, if not pushing them into the arms of radicalisers.
Jawad’s point – that active exclusion feeds radicalisation – is a valid one. But it is also hard to imagine Burkini and bikini wearers happily cohabiting on the beach. Given the recent attacks in Paris and Nice perpetrated by those acting in the name of radical Islam groups like ISIS, any Muslim symbol is (unfortunately) viewed with conscious or unconscious connotation.
And yet all religious faiths have long had requirements on how women and men should dress. Let us not forget Catholic nuns in headdresses; Jewish men in kippahs; Sikh men in turbans. Does it not follow that the covering of a Muslim woman’s head is in the same context, and thus unfairly singled out?
Well, I think the answer is legitimately nuanced according to the type of covering. The hijab (covering the hair and shoulders, but not the face) is one thing. But what of the burka (full body coverage except the eyes) or niqab (also covering eyes)?
From a theological point of view, there is no obligation for any Muslim woman to wear either of the latter. The Koran instructs that women, from puberty, show only hands and face when in public or with strangers:
So, a “burkini” (slight misnomer, since it does not in fact cover the face), is a logical water-proof extension of these teachings, and simply allows Muslim women to enjoy the same seaside fun as everyone else.
Good. Isn’t that what equality is all about?
And after all, the women who choose to wear them would say they do so freely, as part of their religious and cultural identity, or that doing so empowers them: freedom from being looked up and down as a sexual object (precisely the concern of some women back when the bikini was introduced in 1946, amid much controversy).
Have a listen, for example, to this strong testimony from Muslim women living in Los Angeles:
Watching it, I am almost convinced. It is hard to be a feminist, after all, and refute clear-headed arguments of empowerment and choice.
But, but. There is the inevitable question about why a hijab, burka or niqab should be worn by women in the first place. Is the right to decide still valid if the need to choose only exists – today – because of a view on women’s bodies and appropriate behaviours defined in a very different era?
There is no similar requirement of men, and that basic inequality sits uneasily with me, just like any other. Why should women have to cover herself, or demonstrate modesty, but a man is free to dress as he pleases?
I understand the need for men and women of all religions to follow rules or customs. It is part of faith, and beyond that, identity. Those, indeed, are fundamental human rights.
But the existence of certain constraints, dos and don’ts, that only apply to women: should we embrace them because they have always existed? Because they are presented not as inequality, but as a cultural norm? The challenge is hard: at best, an accusation of wilful misunderstanding, at worst, of cultural imperalism.
So how do you assimilate difference, and how much should you assimilate, when that difference means one thing to one person and another to another?
These are the questions behind today’s debate, which is understandably knee-jerk, and often reduced to a battle of values. But if the answers (on a postcard) are hard to find, that doesn’t mean we stop trying.
In the meantime, maybe the solution is nudism. That all-over tan is very pleasing to my OCD, I have to say. And they do seem a peaceful lot – just don’t borrow their Factor50 without asking. Bare necessities, and all…