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Hijab, burkini, and Islamophobia

Zafar Bangash


Led by the French, most Western officials seems to have taken leave of their senses. How else can one explain the ludicrous ban on burkini—the full body swimwear used by some Muslim women—under the guise of protecting women’s freedoms?

What is it with white men that they want to control every aspect of a woman’s life? Strange notions of freedom are peddled: women are free to expose their bodies but they are not “free” to cover them. Who should make that decision? We are back to the notion of white men trying to “liberate” brown women from the clutches of brown men!

In recent weeks, some French officials have gone berserk. Using the ludicrous claim that Muslim women wearing the burkini — the word coined for the full-body swimwear that comes from combining burqa and bikini — is a threat to these women’s freedoms, they haved banned it on their beaches. On August 26, the French administrative court overruled the ban as illegal but the issue is not dead yet. Why do some people find the garment so offensive when they are quite comfortable with, indeed encourage, women to take off even their tops?

Led by the French, most of Europe seems to have taken leave of its senses. Take the example of Thierry Migoule, an official from Cannes, the first city to ban the garment on beaches, who described the burkini as “clothing that conveys an allegiance to the terrorist movements that are waging war against us.” How did Migoule arrive at this conclusion; has he spoken to any of them or studied their behavior? Would women pledging allegiance to the terrorist outfits want to frequent French beaches? It is precisely such asinine thinking that alienates people and makes them easy prey of terrorist propaganda.

While terrorism must be condemned in all its manifestations regardless of the perpetrators, it cannot be confined to criticism of the retail variety while states practice it on an industrial scale thereby causing the reaction — totally counterproductive — among some misguided youth. Further, such hysteria, deliberately generated by officials and eagerly lapped up by the media, is meant to divert attention from the serious failure of states to provide for all their citizens.

Fear and loathing have always been useful tools in the hands of unscrupulous politicians to whip up hysteria so that they could ride the wave to power. This approach is dangerous and ultimately disastrous for the very societies where politicians practice it. Adolf Hitler did it in Germany against the Jews; Benito Mussolini in Italy; Robert Moseley in Britain; and Joe McCarthy in the US. Donald Trump and some politicians in France, the Netherlands, and Austria are using similar tactics today. True, the targeted community suffers but the rest of society does not escape unscathed either.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has also waded into the controversy saying he supports the ban because the burkini represents oppression of women and control of their bodies. One wonders how otherwise sensible looking men can so easily part with common sense, especially when it comes to Muslim women? Why should Muslim women, at the insistence of men, expose their bodies to strangers for their voyeuristic pleasure? Is this what French liberalism is all about?

France, with the largest Muslim population in Europe — most of them immigrants from former French colonies or their children — was the first to ban the hijab in state schools in 2004. This was followed in 2010 by a ban on burqas and now the French regime is planning to ban the hijab in universities as well while the hysterical controversy over the burkini rages on. At least 15 cities have banned the burkini with others contemplating the same.

This is not the liberalism that the French, and indeed Europeans in general, proclaim from atop every garbage can. Rather, it is tribalism of the worst kind. Muslims are not members of the majority “tribe”; they are the non-liberal “others.” They refuse to assimilate into French culture that is automatically considered to be superior, or so the argument goes. How absurd can it get?

There are always unintended consequences of such absurdities. The ban by several French cities has sparked sales of the swimsuit worldwide, not merely among Muslim women but even from many non-Muslim women, cancer survivors, and women wanting to protect their skin from the sun. The Lebanese-born Australian designer of the burkini, Aheda Zanetti told AFP, “It’s just been so hectic… I can tell you that online on Sunday [August 22], we received 60 orders [for burkinis] — all of them non-Muslim.” She usually receives about 10–12 orders on Sundays, according to the AFP report cited by RT and the Guardian (August 23).

Zanetti also said she had received a lot of letters from women of diverse backgrounds since the “burkini issue” came under the spotlight. They were all favorable, except one critical email that asked the designer why she wanted to cover up women. The email said, we the French “prefer our women to be naked”!

Need one say more?

Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT).

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 45, No. 7

Dhu al-Qa'dah 29, 14372016-09-01

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