by Barbara Slavin
The “burkini” controversy is about much more than proper attire on France’s Mediterranean Coast.
The victim of repeated brutal terrorist attacks by men claiming affiliation with the Islamic State (ISIS), France is understandably uneasy at the growth of a native Muslim population that distinguishes itself from the general public in such an obvious way. But the tactics used by some French municipalities this summer to address this anxiety were wrong. The country that produced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789 should know that compulsion, especially when applied to such a personal matter as dress, is bound to be counterproductive.
Fortunately, French courts have ruled the burkini ban unconstitutional after an uproar followed publication of photos showing police forcing a woman to remove a long-sleeved tunic at a beach in Cannes. However, France still forbids headscarves and other symbols of religion in state schools.
The birthplace of the bikini, France has long been known for its relaxed attitudes toward sex and its highly developed sense of fashion. To many French, conservative Islamic dress is an affront to both. As far back as the 19th century, the French writer Guy de Maupassant described black-shrouded Muslim women as resembling “death out for a walk.”
French secular nationalists fear that more and more French Muslims will be coerced into wearing Islamic dress by religious authorities, male relatives and conformist pressure and that that will make other French women feel ill at ease. Some supporters of the ban on Islamic attire in public places also assert that they are actually freeing women from having to wear uncomfortable clothing.
In fact, forbidding Islamic dress forces observant Muslim women to remain indoors and prevents them from participating in activities enjoyed by the rest of society.
On the opposite side, obligatory veiling is also wrong but not always an impediment to women’s advancement. In Iran, where woman have been obliged to cover their hair and bodies in public since shortly after the 1979 revolution, women from traditional families who previously felt unwelcome at Iranian universities were able to obtain higher education for the first time.
Many of these women have gone on to support feminist movements that are demanding more equal rights in the family and the workplace.
Meanwhile, there has been a growing backlash in Iran against obligatory veiling, known as the hijab. Young women subvert the purpose of hijab by wearing tight, bright clothing, dying their hair blond and painting their nails. Others have started a movement called “my stealthy freedom” and post pictures of themselves on social media with their hair streaming in the wind.
The longer the Iranian government insists on the veil, the less popular both the government and the veil are bound to be.
At the same time, Western governments that try to discourage the use of the hijab risk producing the opposite result as women show pride in their religious and ethnic identity. Case in point: sales of burkinis have soared since the French contretemps.
Having visited Iran many times, I always relish the moment when I get on the airplane to go home and can remove the obligatory headscarf. Being able to feel the air around one’s neck and ears again after days without that sensation in public is a pleasure that few men can appreciate. But I also respect those who choose to wear Islamic dress and who believe that their religion values their decision to do so.
The recent Olympics show that it is possible – thanks to modern fabrics – to wear hijab and still win medals. Among those veiled athletes who made it to the medals podium was an American, Ibtihaj Muhammad, who won a bronze in fencing. An Iranian, Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin, also won a bronze, in taekwondo, the first woman from the Islamic Republic to ever win an Olympic medal. She arrived home to see billboards of her smiling face displayed prominently along the roadways of Tehran.
In an ideal world, women would be able to choose their mode of dress without governmental or societal pressures. Even in the United States, however, that has not always been the case.
In this analyst’s youth, girls were forbidden to wear pants to public school and skirts had to cover the knee. School officials with rulers actually patrolled the halls, stopping girls to measure their skirt length and sending home those whose clothes were deemed insufficiently modest. Such rules undoubtedly contributed to the subsequent popularity of blue jeans and mini-skirts.
For centuries, men have tried to prove their power by controlling the appearance and behavior of women. Male dress designers have exerted their own tyranny by decreeing whether skirts should be long or short, tight or loose. Recently fired Fox News executive Roger Ailes reportedly demanded that women anchors wear skirts, not pants, on air so he and other viewers could see their legs.
Now the American people appear poised to elect a woman as president who has campaigned across the country wearing pants and low-heeled shoes. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, perhaps it’s time to judge women by the content of their characters and not by the cut of their clothes.