Freedom, Unfreedom, and the Burkini

You don’t choose your family, goes the old saying, but you do choose your friends. The same goes for quarrels: you choose when and where to have them, and what to have them about. Needless to say, friends and quarrels should be chosen with some care.

When I left France recently for a brief visit to Turkey, a controversy was raging over, of all subjects, the burkini. This is swimwear designed to suit some Moslem sensibilities, exposing no part of the female body to view except he face. Several French seaside towns and village had banned it from their beaches; there had even been a small riot in a Corsican village when someone tried to take a photograph of a woman wearing it.

The controversy started very suddenly when a private swimming pool was rented out to a Moslem association near Marseille which wanted to use it for adult female swimmers who wore the burkini. Children were allowed to attend, but not boys over the age of ten. The mayor of the district in which the swimming pool was situated banned the event because he feared it might constitute a threat to public order. After the various terrorist outrages in France, especially the recent massacre in Nice, feeling runs high in the country against very marked demonstrations of Moslem identity; the very timing of the event was felt to be provocative. Whether it was meant to be such will probably never be known: but at any rate 1000 women signed up for the event.

Arriving in Turkey just after the French courts had ruled that the bans on the burkini were illegal, I read the English-language Turkish newspaper, the Daily Sabah, which contained three articles about the controversy. (I used to read the Daily Zaman when in Turkey, but it was suppressed in July of this year after the coup attempt.)

One of the articles, by Hatem Bazian, a professor of Islamic law at Zaytuna College in San Francisco, who seems to be as near an apologist for or sympathiser with Moslem terrorism in the west as is possible or advisable for an academic in North America to be, rehearsed the arguments against the ban in a perfectly rational fashion under the headline, ‘France’s burkini ban: the theater of the absurd.’

The burkini is not offensive in itself; it covers the face less than most diving outfits. No one would object to nuns appearing in their habits on a beach, though it is unlikely they would actually swim in them, or think of prohibiting them from doing so (except in Saudi Arabia, of course, hardly a model that we should wish to emulate). And we forget our own history: it is not an historical epoch ago that women in our own societies dressed a good deal more ‘modestly,’ not only on the beach, than they do nowadays.

In a free society people may dress as they choose within pretty wide limits. And it is surely a confusion to see the wearing of a burkini as an offence against secularism. Secularism in the French context means that the state does not base itself on any religion, but also that does not enjoin or forbid the practice of any religion.

One argument against the burkini is that it is a symbol of the subjection of women. According to this argument, the women do not wear the burkini by choice; they are coerced into doing so, for their freedom to go to the beach is conditional upon wearing it. But this is far from certain, at least in most cases. In the same edition of the newspaper, a young woman of Turkish descent living in Australia called Gönül Aydemir described her decision to adopt the hijab (a conspicuous form of Muslim dress which does not conceal the face) while in Australia, despite the firm and even ferocious opposition of her mother, who was herself a product of and firm believer in Turkish secularism as the guarantor of women’s freedom. There is no reason to disbelieve the young woman’s account, despite the obvious bias of the publication in which it appeared: it is far from unusual for young women of Muslim heritage to adopt ‘religious’ forms of dress, sometimes as much as a sign of youthful rebellion as of religious feeling (that feeling itself being often another manifestation of such rebellion).

On the other hand, there are cases known to me in which the wearing of Islamic dress was undoubtedly coerced rather than chosen. In fact, though, it is difficult in many cases to draw the distinction: for many, if not all, of our freedoms are conditional upon obeying some convention or other. There are many places where I cannot enter unless I wear a tie, for example. I don’t have to enter, but if I wish to do so I must obey the rule. In these circumstances, is my wearing of the tie free or coerced?

Of course, in the case of the burkini someone has made the rule that women on a beach must be dressed ‘modestly,’ and that such modest dress is a precondition of permission to go on the beach. Permission from whom? The rule might be a mere diktat of men, but it might also be, and in my view probably is, a rule accepted by many of the women irrespective of its origin. In other words, to forbid such women from wearing the burkini would be an unjustified abrogation of their freedom, which is exactly the conclusion that the French courts reached.

Nevertheless, in spite of this clear conclusion, the whole affair leaves me uneasy. There are two current demands in our societies: the right to mark ourselves out from others, and the right not to be discriminated against if we do so. These two rights are not logically incompatible, but if two strongly insisted upon simultaneously will destroy the cohesion of any society.

In addition, I cannot help but recall the words of Mr Erdogan, the President of Turkey, well before he became as eminent and powerful as he has since become. Democracy is a train (or tram, in some citations of what he said) which is useful in getting you to where you want to go, and then you get off.

Could it be that the demand for freedom is here a stalking horse for unfreedom, that a demand for freedom for oneself will end in a demand for the abrogation of the freedoms of others? This would not be unprecedented in recent history: the communists demanded full liberal-democratic freedoms in order later to be able to destroy them. It is this fear that lay behind the clumsy and foolish prohibition of the burkini on French beaches.