Disclaimer: The Burkini is not banned in France today. There is not a single beach in France where women are forbidden from wearing the burkini. What happened was that three cities in the south of France proclaimed a city ordinance which banned burkinis in the beaches of these three cities only. Following much debate and controversy, the State Council, the highest judicial institution in France, canceled these ordinances. There is no restriction to the wearing of the burkini in France today. Nevertheless, it is an important discussion to have, and I am thankful that NYU Shanghai promotes these kinds of talks. The Burkini ban issue was raised at a Perspective on Humanities lecture held on Oct. 25 for all sophomore students.
I think that from the very beginning this talk was poorly introduced. Had I been a student who had never studied French Political History or culture, from the first few sentences of the talk, I would have understood that France is a racist, intolerant country, dominated by white male supremacy. This introduction lacked context, clarity and most importantly, objectivity.
Throughout the talk, the panel of professors was not fostering an objective discussion, nor distancing themselves from the topic in order to weigh the pros and cons. Instead, they were each giving their own personal stand on the issue, all of which were more or less the same. None of them appeared to have a clear understanding of the cultural implications of the burkini ban in France. What I found troubling was that they were clearly addressing the issue without taking into account French culture.
An important concept to take into account while discussing the burkini ban in France is the notion of secularism, which in France has a very specific definition. Historically, the separation of the church and the state in France dates back to the end of the nineteenth century. At the time, the political will was to diminish the role of the Catholic Church in public institutions, especially in schools. The law was finally passed in 1905 and stated that the French Republic ensures the freedom of religion as well as the freedom to engage in all religious observances in a manner consistent with public order. From then on, many laws and constitutions have restated the importance of secularism in all domains of public life. For example, our current Constitution redacted in 1958 affirms that “France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic, and social republic.” More closely related to the burkini ban, a 2004 law on bearing religious signs at school states that “In public schools, the bearing of signs or outfits through which students conspicuously display their religious beliefs is forbidden. […] However, the law does not call into question student’s rights to wear discreet religious symbols.”
I wish the professors had started the discussion with a definition of secularism in France because this is where the core of the debate actually is. One cannot understand the will to ban the burkini without having an understanding of what secularism means in our daily lives. It means that before identifying ourselves with our religious beliefs, we identify ourselves through our nationality. For example, I am not Buddhist and French, I am French and Buddhist. This means that I have every right to worship any religion as long as it remains within the boundaries of my private life. Our religion has nothing to do with who we are as citizens. As citizens, we are not defined primarily by our religious community but by our citizenship and the common values that we share: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity).
As I mentioned at the end of the event, during the Q&A, the prism of ‘race’ that all three professors took to analyze the issue of Muslim marginalization in French society is extremely narrow and untruthful. Indeed, unlike in the United States, our society is not divided by ‘race’. The color of our skin is never an indication of the local community to which we belong nor is it an indication of our religion. To give you an idea of what I mean by this here is a personal anecdote: when I applied to American universities after living all seventeen years of my life in France, I was genuinely confused when in the Common Application I had to put in my race. I did not even know that for Americans, according to the color of my skin, I SHOULD identify as Caucasian. I was just French.
Therefore, when trying to understand the ban of the burkini, it is biased to regard the Muslim community as a race that the “White men politicians,” as Professor Lena Scheen referred to them, are marginalizing through their legislation. By describing the issue of the ban as a racial conflict within French society, these professors were doing exactly what they were so strongly arguing against. They were making assumptions and were putting people in boxes in which they do not belong. I will once again argue that thinking that French citizens of Muslim faith are all Arab immigrants being marginalized is simply a distortion of reality. There are people of many skin colors who are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and others. Making such an assumption is doing what the very far right party in France (the Front National) wants: creating division, rather than unifying people under the same values which are tolerance, secularism, and equality.
I was infuriated by Professor Heather Lee’s response to my comment: that in France, Muslim people are being racialized, especially in caricatures, just like the Jewish community had been racialized during the World War II in France. I think that her comment was highly out of line considering the fact that the situation we are facing now is extremely different. We cannot compare France, as it was in the early 1940s, under Nazi Germany occupation, with the social dilemmas which France, as a free democratic country, is facing today. As a French citizen, I felt attacked and blamed which is not the way a school discussion should make me feel.
Unfortunately, there is a percentage of the population who identifies with the Front National, which does to some extent racialize people of Muslim faith. Sadly, these people believe in the message of hate that the Front National’s leader Marine Le Pen is spreading. To state that all French people racialize French Muslims is wrong. It is important to keep in mind that not all citizens share her views.
I would also like to question the use of sources during the talk. Professor Scheen emphasized the importance of linguistics, saying that one should always try to read sources from their original language in order to grasp all the nuances which can be lost or intentionally distorted with translation. Yet, I believe that the use of a single American article was of poor academic rigor. First of all, the fact that this article was published in the United States means that there is already a bias made by the author on his understanding of French politics and society. Secondly, the quotes that were in that article were very short excerpt of much longer interviews. The most striking example is the choice of the quote taken from the current Prime Minister Manuel Valls on the idea that wearing a burkini is a threat to the values of our democracy. I pulled up the full interview which was published in the journal La Provence.
Here is the translation of the full quote which I wish we had been given during the event:
“Beaches, like any other public space, have to be preserved from any religious claim. The burkini is not a new fashion of bathing suits or a trend. It is the manifestation of a political statement of being against society because it is based on the subjugation of women. Some people try to describe these women as victims as if we were questioning one of their fundamental rights. But it is not a right to subjugate women. […] Behind (wearing the burkini) is the idea that, by nature, women are unchaste, impure, that they should, therefore, be entirely covered. This is not compatible with the values of the French Republic. Facing provocation, the French Republic needs to defend itself. Today, French Muslims are taken hostage by these groups, these associations, these individuals who advocate for the burkini and who would want us to believe that the values our Republic and the values of Islam are irreconcilable. They are preventing discussion and favor confrontation. Therefore, it is also the Muslims’ duty, their (religious) authority, their families, within their personal, professional or social engagements, to say that they reject this mortifying vision of Islam.”
Therefore, it is not at all the idea, unlike what Professor Scheen said, that white male politicians believe that “Muslim=race=threat=terrorism.” It is important to notice that in this quote there is no allusion to terrorism whatsoever. The threat is not the burkini itself nor is it Islam. The burkini does not represent Islamist terrorism, it represents an idea under which women’s bodies should be hidden. Prime Minister Valls believes that wearing a burkini is contrary to France’s values because it is a statement on the status of women in society which contradicts our values of gender equality. In this quote, Manuel Valls is not presenting himself has a “White male politician” trying to keep women from wearing what they want to wear, he is talking as a guardian of our liberties which are that women should not be covering their bodies as a sign of subjugation. If I summarize his argument with an American perspective it would be that Valls believes that the burkini should be banned from public beaches because wearing it goes against the idea that “men and women are created equal and are endowed to inalienable rights which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
To conclude, I would like to thank NYU Shanghai for allowing such important discussions. However, I would also like to point out the importance of being respectful and open-minded towards all views.
This article was written by Jeanne Le Galcher Baron. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: The Independent