Burkini ban in France: individual rights v. what’s right?


By Sarah Al Fardan

ABU DHABI—I was scrolling down my Twitter timeline during the summer when I first read a tweet that carried the news of the burkini ban in France. I was shocked, but I figured it had to be somewhat of a discreet reaction to the recent terrorist attacks in the region. A few days later, I saw my cousin on my Instagram feed. She is a German Muslim who was on a holiday with her family in Carcassonne in southern France. She posted the following:


We contacted each other, and I asked her about the whole incident and what she meant by the caption under her post, quoting Pope John Paul II in addition to a comment of her own that ended with a few French words that translate to “I’ll stay with the goats,” as she was hanging out with a few goats at a lake. Then she added: “In Europe there are people who keep talking for your rights on your behalf, but they have a different definition of freedom, saying, ‘You have to show your hair or else you’re oppressed.’

I chose this quote because to me it means that everyone can have a different definition of what freedom is. For one person freedom is to show your hair, for another it is to cover up. Everyone has a different view. But the government should not come and impose its own opinion of freedom on you. Freedom is relative and every person should decide what it is to them.

France has the highest Muslim population in Europe; about 10 percent of its population is of the Islamic faith. The increased sense of Islamization in the country through the years has led to an increased xenophobia amongst its people, especially after some unfortunate acts of radicalism took place, as well as the emergence of the Syrian refugee crisis in the last two years. People are worried, and you can see this fear getting translated into laws that unfortunately tend to affect individuals who have no control over these situations, individuals who have born there, lived there and identify as French Muslims.

“Whenever something happens, the whole Muslim community in Europe pays the price for it,” my cousin Maria commented. “You feel like you need to be defensive all the time, telling people, ‘We’re not like this.’ You’re put in a position where you have to always explain yourself because you feel like you’re judged too. I don’t think this will change, it might even get worse.”

It has always puzzled me how a country that once rose on the value of freedom can strip down the simple right of someone wearing what they want when engaging in the harmless activity of swimming.

“I wanted to swim because I haven’t swum in a while and I missed it,” Maria said. “I brought my burkini with me and everything. I heard about the ban being implemented on the beaches of the area, and I thought there’s this lake that’s 40 kilometers away from us. Let’s go there and have a swim. It’s not a beach so we can swim comfortably. But then I wasn’t allowed by a lifeguard there, and I got mad. He told me if I swim, I would have to pay a fine. I felt like I wanted to swim even more than before when he told me that, but then I told myself I shouldn’t. They just want money off of our backs. I told myself I don’t want to give my money to a country that treats me this way.”

The fact that former French President Nicholas Sarkozy described the burkini as provocative is mind-boggling to me. I always thought in the back of my head that the secularism that Europe offers would allow individuals to express themselves freely through fashion trends or religious commitments or any other mean they please to follow. I remember learning the French motto being “Liberty, equality, fraternity,” and I can’t help but wonder if these recent policies still carry this message? Or is it being partially sacrificed to supposedly maintain the security of the nation? Can the whole issue be simplified to a matter of principles versus security?

“The burkini ban has nothing to do with national security,” Maria said. “When I talked to the lifeguard in the lake he told me that I’m a provocation to others. Anyone can say a certain thing provokes them. I was surrounded by topless women, but no one considered them to be provocative. They decided that I am the provocation.”

The Muslim community in France already feels discriminated against, and they find it even more challenging to integrate when religious modesty becomes a symbol of threat to national security or provocation. I do understand the ban of the burqa that covers one’s face when it comes to this point, but a burkini should not pose a threat. Or is it a matter of France feeling challenged by diversity, in the sense that it fears losing its national identity?

This however depends on the complex answer to what it means to be French. Whatever the reasons are, coercion should not be part of the process of social integration, because it contradicts it through the resistance that the attempts of homogenization are going to cause.

“People here in Germany don’t see us the same too,” Maria stated. “You have to put more effort in whatever you do, like school or work, in hopes of reaching what you want. They make it hard for you everywhere if you have a Muslim name or wear hijab. They will not directly tell you that you’re not accepted but they will make you feel like it.”

I do think this law is a reflection of how unaccepted a minority can be. Not only does this law unnecessarily criminalize a swimsuit, which looks a lot like what a scuba diver would typically wear, but it also aids in lifting the barriers for people to not be afraid to speak out against a specific ethnic group. It opens the door for further discrimination and racism, mainly against French Muslims of North African descends. The media and the acts of terrorist organizations like ISIS is giving enough reasons for Muslims to be hated. The government should not take the role of pushing that even more forward, especially when it is against its own citizens and a community that accounts for 10 percent of its population.

Cultural clashes are inevitable in this age of globalization and increased facilitated migration. It happens in this part of the world too.

Therefore, I do understand the French perspective and respect it, but do not agree with it when it comes down to the burkini. I’ve always believed that using force to either make someone wear something or take it off is equally wrong. There are better ways to approach the issue of when one feels provoked by the appearance of someone, and it should not include humiliation and forceful laws that contributes to further stigmatization of a specific ethnicity.

Maybe I’m too much of an idealist when it comes to this, but I do believe that respect of differences and understanding should be the key.

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