The French try to rewrite Islam, again

Saturday, 22nd August 2009 at 8:00 UTC 3 comments

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.


Entry filed under: Culture, France, Freedom, Islam, News, Religion, Women.

Welcome to Staycation Nation Challenging Africa’s ‘enclosure’

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Helen  |  Saturday, 22nd August 2009 at 9:40 UTC

    My local pool, being in a predominantly Muslim area, has some women-only sessions, but somewhat awkwardly, no men-only sessions. I used to go on a Wednesday but found I was the only woman there and felt a little uncomfortable with this. Of course I don’t know if the men who attended were Muslim, but if they were, they may well have decided to attend the pool precisely because there were few women about – after all, part of the onus is on them to avoid lustful thoughts or situations that might prompt them (not saying I’d necessarily promote lustful thoughts… but you never know 🙂 )

    Men-only sessions or clubs of any kind usually promote criticism, and often for good reason, as they can be used as ways of excluding women from society as a whole (ie men can use men-only clubs as a way of networking and climbing the social ladder, to the detriment of women). But it would provide a good service to men who wanted to swim without worrying about seeing women in bikinis or making said women in bikinis uncomfortable… it would also avoid the problem of making every session that wasn’t women only an ipso-facto men-only session… meaning that women who did want to attend a mixed session could feel they were genuinely allowed to do so.

  • 2. misterbunbury  |  Saturday, 22nd August 2009 at 10:38 UTC

    Graham, a problem with your post is that it assumes that all women are totally empowered to make free choices about themselves, their identity and the way they dress. When you take covering up – something that has undeniably been used to dehumanise many women around the world – and make it a totally free choice, you allow the weak and vulnerable to be taken advantage of by the strong men in their lives and culture. I’d prefer to deny a few free, empowered women their rights to wear a burqa than deny some closeted muslim women the chance to get out of it.

  • 3. Duck  |  Tuesday, 25th August 2009 at 14:53 UTC

    There’s been women-only swimming sessions around Britain for years – the York one is mostly attended by people not obviously Muslim (mostly older women, since it’s weekday daytime). Muslim women don’t have to cover when in women-only environments. I often wear long-sleeved tops / leggings to swim outdoors (sunburn), this hasn’t ever been an issue at any swimming pool, so it should be simple for Muslims to cover themselves if they wish for mixed sessions. I don’t understand why there’s any need for specifically ‘Muslim’ sessions.

    Greg, in that case should I be forced to wear a bikini to work, just in case some women might otherwise feel unable to exercise freedom of choice in bikini-wearing? If people are being pressured into one dress code, imposing another doesn’t actually give them more agency, nor does it solve the social issues that are denying them agency.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

My Twitter Updates

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

Blog Stats

  • 77,842 visits

Copyright Info