+972 Magazine's Stories of the Week

Directly In Your Inbox

Analysis News
Visit our Hebrew site, "Local Call" , in partnership with Just Vision.

Liberal Europe doesn't understand: The burkini is a feminist issue

By banning the burkini, the French view themselves as the ones liberating veiled women from Muslim patriarchy. Instead they are only imposing a different form of oppression.

By Eiad Shalabne

Illustrative photo of a woman in a burkini. (bellmon1/CC BY-NC 2.0)

Illustrative photo of a woman in a burkini. (bellmon1/CC BY-NC 2.0)

The images of French policemen handing out tickets to Muslim women in religious garb on the beaches of Nice this past week reflect a depressing interpretation of the essence of democracy and freedom of religion in the West, and specifically France. Under the guise of “women’s liberation” and secularism, France’s elected officials are trying to limit the presence of Muslim women in the public space by establishing guidelines for how women must undress when they go to the beach.

French legislators are ostensibly telling themselves and their voters that denying Muslim women from wearing burkinis was established n order to promote women’s liberation, and that the burkini itself is a symbol of the Muslim world’s patriarchal oppression (regardless of whether these women are immigrants or French born). French politicians, therefore, believe they are doing right by telling Muslim women: “liberate yourselves” says the French Republic, “liberate yourselves and reveal your bodies. You are no longer in the Middle East, you are in Western Europe, where no one can tell you how to dress or how to act.” Or in the words of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls: “The burkini is not compatible with the values of the French Republic.”

One must ask, however, whether liberating women from the veil, hijab, or burkini is itself an act of feminist liberation? Shouldn’t the progressive, enlightened West give women the right to choose whether to cover up or undress?

Of course arguments about religious freedom— or freedom from religion, as the secular French Republic prefers to view it — are a metaphor for the burkini itself: they cover up the racism of France’s legislators towards the Muslim communities of Europe. After all, photos of nuns enjoying themselves at the beach in full dress are and will continue to be prevalent across Europe. If so, why do we not ask France’s lawmakers to fine nuns in the name of secularism? Perhaps freedom of religion in the West only applies to certain religions — and specifically to the religion of the majority, even if that majority is secular.

The arguments against the burkini as a tool of oppression reflect the fact that France and Europe in general — even after dozens of years of Muslim presence — are still tainted with prejudices toward their Muslim citizens. Along the way, we miss the fact that democracy is supposed to include the concept of pluralism — not just one variety of white, liberal secularism.

Looking for the feminine beauty ideal

The controversy over the burkini ban gives us an interesting glimpse into how the West views the fundamentals of democracy — a kind of test that allows us to understand not the limits of permissiveness, but rather who exactly benefits from freedom of worship and who falls victim to the West’s “enlightened” patriarchy. Camouflaged as freedom from religion, French authorities impose a secular lifestyle not only on its communities, but on the individual as well. As always, women are the first to pay the price for cultural oppression. French politicians, like many of their counterparts in Western countries, view the burkini (as well as the hijab) as a symbol of oppression of Muslim women. By banning the burkini, the French see themselves as the ones who are liberating the Muslim woman from Muslim patriarchy.

It seems that in cases in which Muslim women demand the right to wear whatever they want, the West (France may be the most prominent example, but this happens in Germany, Britain, and the United States) shows Muslim women that that women’s liberation has only one shape and form. Not only does this not align with women’s liberation, it only expresses another form of male oppression, an oppression which requires women to shave their body hair and demands that they remain thin and toned. Using Western beauty standards, Europe’s racists seek to exclude Muslim women from the public space.

Make no mistake about it: the Muslim world suffers from severe chauvinism, the kind we would like to hope doesn’t have a place in the 21st century. But if women’s rights are truly a priority for the burkini banners, they better show the world that freedom of religion is a basic right in a democracy — that freedom of religion is a woman’s right as much as it is a civil right.

It is sad to discover that even in 21st century Western Europe, the right of women to express themselves, their beliefs, and their rights to their body are at the mercy of the male lawmaker.

Eiad Shalabne received his bachelor’s degree from Ben-Gurion University and his MBA from University of Colorado Boulder. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

Newsletter banner

Before you go...

A lot of work goes into creating articles like the one you just read. And while we don’t do this for the money, even our model of non-profit, independent journalism has bills to pay.

+972 Magazine is owned by our bloggers and journalists, who are driven by passion and dedication to the causes we cover. But we still need to pay for editing, photography, translation, web design and servers, legal services, and more.

As an independent journalism outlet we aren’t beholden to any outside interests. In order to safeguard that independence voice, we are proud to count you, our readers, as our most important supporters. If each of our readers becomes a supporter of our work, +972 Magazine will remain a strong, independent, and sustainable force helping drive the discourse on Israel/Palestine in the right direction.

Support independent journalism in Israel/Palestine Donate to +972 Magazine today
View article: AAA
Share article
Print article

    * Required


    1. R5

      R5: this basically misses the point. Banning the burkini is, on a practical level, quite stupid because it can’t be enforced in non-discriminatory way, yes. But let’s not re-hash the silly idea that Muslim women are veiling themselves out of feminist “choice” – they could renounce Islamic modesty and be cast out of their communities and families, but most people wouldn’t “choose” that, and the author must understand that any “choice” on this matter is made under duress. Same goes for the Satmar Hasidim in Brooklyn. France’s argument (which the author doesn’t address) is that making it impossible for Muslims to enforce their morals in public space will enable REAL choice, where women don’t face devastating personal consequences for not putting on a hijab or veil because everyone understands that failure to conform is a matter of respect for the law and not personal rebellion. And this general goal is noble, its just very hard to accomplish without infringing on personal liberty.

      Reply to Comment
    2. BaladiAkka 1948

      Today’s decision by the Conseil d’Etat: “The Council of State orders a decision banning clothes demonstrating an obvious religious affiliation to be suspended”
      So the banning by local mayors was unconstitutional.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Boaz

      This is a message from a liberal Jew and a French citizen.

      Islamic garb is not what women wish to wear, but the attire their male next of kin expect them to wear.

      In certain suburbs of French towns, you can’t walk the streets during Ramadan eating a snack of smoking a cigarette, without being verbally harassed or even physically challenged.
      The same stands valid for women of “moslem appearance” who fail to wear a headscarf.

      In my double capacity, I would kindly request the rest of the world to mind their own business-especially the anglophone media like this one.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Elias Hassen

      I predict Muslim women will start wearing Nunn outfits.

      Reply to Comment
    5. R5

      Boaz: Right now there are several American foundations and European churches funding anti-Israel groups to produce a lot of propaganda like this article. Although this issue in France has nothing to do with Israel directly, part of the strategy for damaging Israel is depicting Muslims as victims anywhere in the West, including France. This ideology believes Israel is a “colonial” state oppressing Muslims, so they will depict former colonial states like France as oppressing Muslims, in order to draw a parallel to Israel. This means these websites will pay no attention to your request. They will write about French affairs as long as it is useful to them.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Average American

      This could just as well be an economic action by France for purpose of tourism. French beaches have a cultivated image of lots of skin, not lots of clothes. Has nothing to do with Israel, is not a sideways jab at Israel. Not everything in the world centers on Israel’s problems. One of Israel’s problems is it thinks everything in the world does, or worse, should.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Harry Edel

      The burkini ban is a popular reaction to the Islamic ideological challenge to western values represented by the Burka. In france secularism is much more than the superficial “live and let live” attitude of the liberal anglo democracies. It has a much more consciously profound anti-clerical basis. That’s why France, most specifically, and ISIS are caught up in such a vicious struggle.

      Reply to Comment
    8. BrianG

      Up until the 70’s the Catholic Church, would not let women attend mass if her head was not covered.Nuns still have to cover their heads.It was not that long ago that young women who were not married were not allowed in public without an auntie or escort.
      The burkini is a convenient diversion from problems of women’s oppression in Western Democracies as a whole.

      Reply to Comment