Viral images of a Muslim woman being compelled by police to remove her "burkini" on a beach on Nice, France, combined with reports of women being fined for wearing the modest swimwear (which has been banned in a number of French cities), have sparked quite the debate over gender equality, religious liberty, free expression, and government overreach in legislating morality in France.
The Guardian reports that Nice's Socialist mayor, Ange-Pierre Vivoni, called his ban on this particular style of ladies' swimwear a vital act to "protect the population." The mayor was backed by a tribunal ruling calling the ban a "necessary, appropriate and proportionate" response in the interest of maintaining public order following several jihadist attacks in France, including one where 84 people were killed by a maniac in a truck last month, just a few hundred feet from the beach in Nice where the woman in those viral images was forced to dress down by armed agents of the state.
The tribunal also justified the ban by stating that the burkini — which resembles a looser-fitting version of a standard wetsuit — was "liable to offend the religious convictions or (religious) non-convictions of other users of the beach," and "be felt as a defiance or a provocation exacerbating tensions felt by [the community]," according to The Guardian.
In a recent Reason column, Steve Chapman noted that for proponents of the ban, it's not just the feelings of non-Muslims in terror-scared France at stake, it is concern for Muslim women compelled by what they describe as "sexist oppression" to hide almost all their skin in public:
Their argument goes as follows: France must dictate what Muslim women wear to teach them that no one may dictate what they wear. In the name of promoting the freedom of Muslim women, government should deprive them of the right to make their own apparel choices.
It's the logical extension of France's law against full-face coverings, particularly the kind worn by some Muslim women. Supporters of that law, enacted in 2010, said it was needed to keep criminals from concealing their identity. That excuse doesn't work for the burkini, which confirms it was just that: an excuse.
CNN reports, "Rachid Nekkaz, a wealthy Algerian entrepreneur and human rights activist, has stepped up to the plate to pay the penalty for any Muslim woman who is fined in France for wearing the burkini" and according to the BBC, the controversy has led to "booming" burkini sales.
But the burkini bans are just an extension of France's nationwide ban on burqas, which is in keeping with country's strict adherence to the separation of religion and public life. One sociologist was quoted by The Local as saying the burqa ban "created a monster," arguing that despite the government's best intentions, "it has both encouraged Islamophobia as well as given Muslim extremists more cause to feel the need to rise up against the French state."
France has also banned wearable religious symbols such as Christian crosses, Sikh turbans, and Jewish kippahs (male head skullcaps) in schools and government buildings. But the banning of clothing — which is inherently an expression of identity, particularly religious identity — is also a logical extension of the many bans on other modes of expression meant to rid French society of wrong thinking.
In its (literally) centuries-long quest to foster an enlightened, secular, bigotry-free society, the French government has made Holocaust denial a criminal act punishable by prison time. The same goes for making stupid drunken anti-Semitic comments to cell phone-wielding tourists, as well as making jokes "condoning terrorism." Local government bans on meetings of activists in the anti-Israeli Boycott Divest Sanction (BDS) movement continue to be litigated. Even iconic French actress Brigette Bardot was convicted for "hate speech" for her public opposition to the Islamic ritual slaughter of animals without the use of anesthetics.
The common thread is the regular practice by the French government in passing laws and prosecuting individuals based on high-minded ideals which place limits on free expression that would be unimaginable in the U.S.
This French style of government-enforced secularism and righteous thinking is ostensibly "progressive," but as the burkini kerfuffle demonstrates, the same faith in legislating correct expression not only puts drunken fashion designers and controversial comedians in jail for obnoxiously mouthing off, it also forces women to be humiliated in public by the brute enforcement of a law that's meant to protect these same women from oppression.