The French try to rewrite Islam, again
One wouldn’t expect the mayor of a small town in France to be the best at telling people what the Quran has to say on any issue, but apparently that’s exactly what happened in a bizarre twist to yet another tale of French religious interference. We’ve had the headscarf in schools row, its now time for the Islamic swimming costume row.
The reverse-case of the story, which was highlighted in the Telegraph, was only two days after I wrote this post, so please forgive me if this appears a little selective. I wanted to focus on the French issue anyhow, so I’m leaving the post as is, though I want it to be known I support the councils that have Muslim swim-sessions, and encourage non-Muslims to take advantage of them.
One of the most telling factors in the story is that this woman, a western convert, has made it very clear that leaving France altogether is quite a plausible option for the future. It was both a politically well-made gesture (the media do love a good exile story) and probably quite telling of how Muslims, unlike the majority of Western Christians, will ultimately put their religion first.
But lets think about the raw facts of this tale, in the context of all women’s experiences (and yes, I realise as a man that this is rather dangerous territory). How many women in Western society simply won’t go swimming? Many have huge body image issues, some have historic issues, and some probably have skin conditions; hell, I’m an eczema sufferer, and going swimming can bad enough for showing off red blotches, let alone the issue of chlorination effects. As such, its some years since I went swimming, and I do rather worry about my current ability to survive if I fell in the river I regularly cycle past to get more or less anywhere.
Lets put the religion on one side and consider both the health and safety issues here. Swimsuit design might in one sense be about modesty, but no one can deny that a lot of it is actually about exposing the human body. Otherwise, why would Miss World have its swim-wear category? And yet we expect people to strip off and swim on a regular basis as a means of keeping fit.
In this context, giving people the option of using specially designed outfits designed to conceal more of their bodies should be an option. After all, how many women use these costumes in Arabic countries? And how many people get ill as a result? I wonder if perhaps the worry is that the Islamic swim suit becomes more widespread than just amongst Muslims.
And of the attempts to prevent women wearing the Burka? Surely France realises that this is bound to backfire? Every attempt to outlaw conspicuous religion in France has simply resulted in a backlash, and often in embassy staff getting it rather badly. What could they possibly gain from this move? Driving religion under ground and into its own schools is simply not an option if France wants to avoid another round of unrest.
But this is not an issue purely for Muslims, or indeed an issue purely for women. This is state interference in modes of dress. How else can we put it? This is no different to a government cracking down on immodesty, or a government ordering that women wear skirts instead of trousers or trousers instead of skirts. This is an issue about ourselves, our bodies, regardless of configuration, and our right to communicate what is important to us.
What I find to be most galling about Sarkozy’s present fight against the Burka is this: “We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity”. Whether such women are cut off from social life by their dress or our reactions to it, and whether facial expressions even matter as much as we Westerner’s believe they do, one thing they do not do is deprive women of an identity.
I was recently reminded of how I used to wear a cross round my neck most days. It wasn’t that I lost interest, by the way, I simply lost the cross. Information leading to its whereabouts… anyhow, I digress. People used to complain bitterly about it, sometimes in surprising ways. But it was a way of making up my identity. And when a government intervenes to stop someone displaying their identity, something has gone horribly wrong in the limiting of state power that is supposed to exist in a democracy. A line has definitely been crossed. And that line could affect any and all of us in different ways. We should not just fear it because it shows a government willing to target policy unfairly, but because of the risk it might become the excuse, the precedent, for more widespread policy on dress.