What is the Real Controversy?

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 [email protected] to get in touch.
Photo Credit: The Independent

Author: Jeanne Le Galcher Baron

7 thoughts on “What is the Real Controversy?

  1. As a French citizen I Fully agree with Jeanne. This matter has been politicised to the full extent, 30 years ago we did not have any niqab or burkini. When Saudi Arabia and Qatar invested in our country and mosques, a political Islam started to emerge. In some of our suburbs where they were put there during the 1970 immigration campaign (it consisted of welcoming men’s and their families to work. They came from Africa) and were given few job opportunities. That’s where now we find most niqab. 8 years ago President Sarkozy did a law to forbid burka and niqab. It was because we wanted to protect women’s from the whabism. This law is not enforced at all and if you go to Argenteuil a suburb of Paris you will see a lot of mosques with only men around it and at the supermarkets you will see women’s in burka and niqab. When later this year many women’s with burkini came to the beach we had to respond to the blatant provocation. The choice was difficult should we ask them to put off their clothes to enforce the religion equality right, against their religious guidelines. I think we should forbid niqab and burkini because these women’s are hidden from our society their objective is to make them inferior and we cannot tolerate that. We should stop this

  2. I’m going to start out by saying that I am NOT French, nor did I really get to fully experience what happened at the POH talk. However, I have to 100% disagree with several things that have been said in this article. I will focus on one, however, that is completely disturbing for me, as a person of color, living in the United States. Now, wait, I can already see you looking at the comment I just made and reasserting the exact same things you’ve mentioned in the article: the cultural factor of France. You make an ENORMOUS and what I and many people believe to be an EXTREMELY FALSE claim here by saying “Indeed, unlike in the United States, our society is not divided by ‘race’.” Do you really think that your entire country, an entire EUROPEAN country that has long been a player in colonizing and dehumanizing a huge part of the world, really sees “no color” today? That there are still no remnants of racism?? I’m not trying to say that every single “French-white” person is racist. I hope you don’t misunderstand me. But to go ahead and believe the things you say in this article is naïve and again, the effect of what we Americans like to call “white privilege.” Just like you mention that article being bias because it was written by Americans, this article is just as bias due to the fact that we are getting the opinion of someone who is in the majority, a white person, a person with privilege, a person who cannot fathom the idea that there are people who wake up everyday thinking about their race in places where the majority is white. The thing is, however, this term does not just apply to Americans like you seem to suggest. France isn’t special and isn’t immune to this. This is something that needs to be understood and I will gladly enjoy having this discussion with you one-on-one.

  3. Ok, so I could barely get through this out completely raging out. Please note that I am Belgian, Dominican woman raised Catholic/Jew and currently living studying at NYU Paris.
    Kid, wake up and learn to read between the lines of political speech. You post the entire quote by Prime Minister Manuel Valls in an effort to defend France’s attempted ban on the burkini, siting that he is not doing so as a “white man” yet everything you need in order to condemn him of doing exactly that is in that quote. The simple fact that he and the French public believe that a women’s freedom is based on whether or not she is willing to submit to white western standards of ‘feminism’ and ‘liberation’ is COMPLETELY UN-FEMINIST and goes against all of your claims on equality. As has been said time and again given the current situation between the western establishment and Islam, MODESTY EMPOWERS SOME, EXHIBITION EMBOWERS OTHERS! Last i checked no one said a THING about nuns wearing the burkini, even though there are plenty of picture of Catholic sister frolicking in the surf in them, so please don’t be naive enough to claim this is about secularism, and not islamophobia. If that were true everyone in France would pitch a fit every time a hasidic jew entered a public building. You have got to acknowledge that even with secularism, France is a largely catholic country, and as such it function towards the benefits of catholics.
    Admittedly maybe the school didn’t do the best job representing the entire situation but you also have to acknowledge your own bias, and relative blindness to the extent of things, being that you enjoy the privilege of existing in France as a white woman. Frankly this entire article reads as you pitching a fit because you think that the US has a negative bias against France and you feel attacked, when really you might be better served to consider how Muslim people in France feel about being singled out and attacked on a daily basis in their own country.
    Now in regards to you thinking that your country isn’t divided by race, I’m going to have to say that is 100% FALSE. I have many French family members and have visited France on several occasions and am currently LIVING there and I can tell you I have seldom heard more racist crap in a single day. The French, regardless of how often they say it, do not believe that the POCs living there are truly part of their country. To them they are second class citizens who should either play by French rules or get out of their ‘sand-box’. The French refuse to acknowledge that different people have different values and in order to evolve along with our ever-changing world, they have to be willing to work with everyone. I mean, for goodness sake they can’t even admit that their imperialism has been bad for the world! The French still exist in the delusion that they invaded and extorted other nations in the name of HELPING those places. Acknowledge your own bias before complaining about someone else’s.
    I won’t go on because if you check out Nady/Fatou Camara Thiam’s post on FB I think you’ll get a more thorough sense of what I mean. To sum up I would suggest fully delving into the sources you use to support your claims instead of cherry-picking from them in order to make your point. The result of cherry-picking is a single google search and a little critical thinking can bring your entire argument crashing down.

  4. Hi before forming an opinion on a subject regardless of your nationality, race, gender, religion I think it is very important to get informed about the different topics you are going to talk about. Especially if you are going to challenge people on their assumptions, it is clear from this article that you haven’t considered/challenged yours. I hope you can try to find more information about race and racism, Wikipedia is always a good place to start!

  5. To enable students who were not present to better understand the context for this article, we, the faculty members involved in this event, are writing to clarify the main points of our presentation.

    Speaking from our various disciplinary perspectives, we examined the burkini bans in France. Our goal was to demonstrate how the Humanities offer insights into a contemporary politically-charged topic. In the course of our three presentations, we made the following main claims:

    Race-based laws in the United States and their consequences for racialized populations help us understand the stakes for racialized peoples in France.
    Discursive representations of the Muslim threat offered in statements made by French political officials are shaped by racialized notions of gender.
    The meanings of our expressions are determined by the social contexts in which they are embedded. As a consequence, the meaning of the burkini for those who wear it is not a function of what it means to those outside the practice in which it is embedded.

    By racialization, we refer to “any process or situation wherein the idea of ‘race’ is introduced to define and give meaning to some particular population, its characteristics and actions. Hence, the fact that the public and political reaction to the Irish migration and presence in Britain in the nineteenth century employed the idea of ‘race’ to refer to the Irish can be understood, analytically, as an instance of racialization” (Robert Miles, “Racialization”, in Ellis Cashmore (Ed), Encyclopedia of Race and Ethnic Studies, Routledge, London, 2004, pp. 348–349).

    By approaching the burkini ban through our disciplinary perspectives, we aimed to reveal assumptions and processes that are frequently unacknowledged in public conversation. In so doing, we exhibited some of the possibilities of understanding that our disciplines provide. We hope the event provided fertile ground to all of you seeking to unravel the personal, societal, and global consequences of this topic.

    Heather Lee
    Lena Scheen
    Brad Weslake

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