By Irfan Husain
September 3rd, 2016
After all, the country was home to innumerable nude statues that adorn parks everywhere. So much so that when I was at school in Paris, and asked to escort a visiting aunt around the city, I recall her giggling at all the nudity. Later at home, she said to my mother: “Hai, Hamida, I should take some fabric and dress those poor naked women!”
Admiration for the undressed human form in the West dates back to the classical Greek period when athletes at the original Olympic Games competed in the nude. During the French revolution in 1789, a female figure came to depict Liberty and Reason, and adorned official pronouncements and posters of the day.
How Did The Burkini Come To Occupy Centre Stage In French Politics?
She was transformed into the person of Marianne in 1848, and became the symbol of the French Republic. This is the allegorical personage Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, referred to in his recent speech where he said:
“Marianne has a bare breast because she is feeding the people. She is not veiled, because she is free. That is the Republic!”
Except, of course, Valls mixed up his classical allusions: Marianne is not depicted with an exposed breast. He was probably referring to the 1830 Delacroix painting Liberty Leading the People, in which a female figure with a bare breast is leading a group of revolutionaries.
While Valls was duly chastised and ridiculed in France for his ignorance, the episode shows the lengths to which French politicians will go in their quest to revile the Burkini, the outfit of choice for Muslim women visiting the beaches of France. This swimwear which encompasses the body while allowing freedom of movement is now the focus of a legal battle.
Banned in several French towns along the Mediterranean as a response to the recent acts of jihadist terrorism that have shaken the country, the edict has been mocked and criticised across the world. Although the French administrative court has suspended the ban, several mayors are defying this decision, thus placing François Hollande’s government in a quandary.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks, the right has gained support for its anti-immigration (read Islamophobic) views and policies. In the presidential election due next year, Marine Le Pen’s hard right National Front is expected to do well. Even normally liberal politicians like Valls are being forced to assume right-wing positions on immigration.
So how did the Burkini come to occupy centre stage in French politics? The daily Midi Libre has called it an “ostentatious religious symbol”, while Valls dubbed it “the expression of a political project, a counter-society, based notably on the enslavement of women”.
The widespread perception is that the Burkini, the Burqa and other similar outfits have been forced on women by their fathers, husbands and brothers, and that those who wear them have no choice in the matter. But this is an oversimplification: the mothers of many young women who choose to cover themselves do not wear the Niqab or the Burqa, and are often puzzled by the insistence their daughters display in their choice of all-concealing garments.
Since the 1980s, the Muslim world — as well as Muslims in the Diaspora — has become more conservative and more outwardly religious. In large measure, this is the result of the Saudi export of their orthodox Salafi/Wahhabi beliefs through their financing of madrasas across the Islamic world. In the West, the House of Saud has spent lavishly in building mosques, and paying the salaries of preachers as well as sending poisonous teaching material.
These evangelical activities have produced a generation of Muslims who have a far narrower vision of the world than their parents did. And these rigid views have created an environment where extremism has flourished. Hence the reluctance to integrate into the social and cultural milieu Muslims in the West have chosen to live in.
Simultaneously, the rise of brutal violence in the name of Islam has antagonised millions in the non-Muslim world. And when this terrorism is carried out by radicals who were born and brought up in the West, it is doubly terrifying. From this perspective, it is easy to understand where Islamophobia, even among normally tolerant people, springs from.
In the case of France, there is a cultural superiority complex at work as well. Having long viewed itself as the centre of fashion and culture, it has seen its pre-eminent position taken by the US and the UK. And now, the millions of Muslims living in France are refusing to accept the country’s cultural norms by insisting on their own food, languages and dress. The Burkini was one transgression too many.
We are all born naked into this world, and leave it in a shroud. In between these two events, surely we should be free to dress as we please.