In 2016, images from the beaches of Nice were published, showing a group of male police officers stripping a Muslim woman wearing a Burkini, an overall swimsuit that includes a Hijab. The French law prohibits wearing an “integral veil” for reasons of public safety on the one hand and “explicit religious sign” in public schools on the other, which means it is technically legal to wear hijab everywhere except public schools, including burkini on the beach. However, the 2015-16 attacks in various areas of France have radicalized the public attitude towards veils, with seven towns, among them Nice and Cannes, banning the burkini.
The prohibition doesn’t refer directly to Islam, but Newspapers and politicians didn’t fail to mention the Nice terror attack in their reports on the matter, and the ban itself is written in terms of “state of emergency”, requiring citizens to respect “moral standards”, “common decency”, “hygiene”, “safety” and “secularism” in their fashion choices. These measures have since been cancelled by the state, but studies report that 66% of French citizens are currently in favour of forbidding the burkini on beaches and less than 50% of employers are open to employees wearing a hijab at work.
The sentiment surrounding the burkini ban manifests a long-standing tradition of Western man’s concern with the Eastern woman’s body. The terms “West” and “East” are in themselves social constructs, as postcolonial studies assume that existing ethnic hierarchies have no objective meanings, but rather derive from colonial and nationalist views of the Western world seeing itself as modern and rational, and the “other” (e.g., the “East”) as irrational and passive. This ideology, defining Western culture as a universal benchmark for moral judgment, was referred to by Edward Said as “Orientalism”, assuming that ethnic identity is based on the creation and definition of the “other”, regardless of ethnicity and geography. This enabled the construction of “otherness” by the French under the East/West discourse, despite the geographic fact that most French colonies were in North Africa (i.e., not the east).
With growing involvement of post-colonial subjects in the lives of French citizens through immigration, orientalism spawned sophisticated variants that appeal to liberalism as a justification for continued “Western” supremacy. Such is the notion of Femonationalism, introduced by Sara Farris (2017). The term aims to frame the political-economic logic underpinning “the surprising intersection among nationalists, feminists, and neoliberals” in denouncing Muslim communities as exceptionally sexist, unlike western countries, perceived as sites of “superior” gender relations. Farris demonstrates how invoking women’s rights to stigmatize Muslim men advances those different actors’ own political objective.
Such narratives are not new in colonial perceptions. Spivak’s (1988) essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” discusses the Western intellectual’s view of himself as transcending the socio-cultural context in which he was educated to examine the colonial subjects in a “context-less” manner, that in fact echoes his own voice. The white man perceives himself as the saviour of the non-white woman, protecting her from the oppressive patriarchal regime in which she lives while ignoring the oppression undergone by those women under his rule, as well as the oppression that white women undergo. This thought paradigm is useful for understanding the context of the forces exerted on non-Western women in the burkini affair and in general. I do not mean to imply that non-Western cultures should not be criticised, but to highlight that the active force here is an inherent sense of supremacy of the West rather than a necessity arising from the voice of the victims (real or imagined).
A quote by France’s former minister of Families, Children and Women’s Rights, Laurence Rossignol, is a good example, stating that “women’s control over their bodies is at risk. When a brand invests in a Muslim clothing market, it is essentially renouncing responsibility and promoting women’s incarceration”. Her claims do not take into consideration the will and needs of women who buy and wear the burkini. Ra/ther, she is the one putting their control over their bodies at risk.
While Burkini is a relatively new phenomenon, the concern regarding covering Muslim women is a long-standing practice. Elor (2017) discusses how the word “veil”, narrowing and inaccurate to begin with, became a “problem” or an “issue” in Western countries. The word immediately relates “the problem” with Muslims people, government, economy and culture, but Elor demonstrates that time after time the concerns end up being placed specifically on the heads of girls and women. In current discourse, the West presents an ethos of gender equality that seeks to see itself as a universal order. The woman in the veil undermines this representation when she does not adopt the “principle of equality” but openly selects difference. These women are acting on the gender axis, and yet they’re being disciplined first and foremost on the national axis. Accordingly, the politicians’ criticism of the Burkini allegedly refers to gender, but mainly reveals the national source of Western discomfort. French 2016 PM Manuel Valls, called the Burkini “not compatible with the values of France and the Republic” and Nice’s deputy mayor wrote that “hiding the face or wearing a full-body costume to go to the beach is not in keeping with our ideal of social relations”. In the terms of Bhabha’s (1998) “The White Stuff”, with these statements “Whiteness” (i.e., the West) continues its “nationalist career” under the guise of “civil culture”, “tolerance” and other terms created to draw humans into a community, but, also to exclude some as “others.
Further understanding of what Farris (2017) describes as an “unholy alliance” between feminists and nationalists requires a closer look into the positions of western women towards the Burkini. Nadia Guessous’s (2011) ethnographic study of leftist feminist politics in Morocco of the new millennium connects the hostility of some Moroccan feminists towards younger women who wear the hijab with their struggle to deal with loss, a moment before recognizing and accepting that the aesthetics of modernity have changed. Guessous found that feminists of the older generation, similarly to Susan Okin’s approach (1989;1999), discursively construct “tradition” as a problem and perceive themselves as “guardians of modernity” despite struggling with its constitutive contradictions themselves. They are unable to deal with the gap between their assumptions about freedom, religion, and the body and those of the younger generation of women, who have different strategies and ideas on how feminist action looks like. Rossignol’s critique – both as a woman and as the minister responsible for women’s rights – shares the national dimension that characterizes male politicians, with this additional shade of gender dimension.
The West male gaze of the East has infiltrated so deeply into the population through the practice of nationalism, that feminist women, who feel committed to women’s struggles, remain blind to its impact on their feminist approach. The absence of this impact is very noticeable in the writings of Lady Mary Montague, the first secular account by a woman of the Muslim Orient, written in the 18th century before the idea of nationalism became central in European thought (Melman, 1992). Montague wrote in the early days of the imperial era, a period characterized by extensive travel literature, much of it by “armchair travellers”, who never left Europe and base their writing on third-hand sources and/or their fertile imagination (Montesquieufor example). As opposed to those mainly male writers, Montague wrote from the Orient itself, while living in Istanbul between 1716 and 1718. Already then, veils were seen in the West as a symbol of the enslavement of women in the Muslim world. However, when Montague addresses the subject in her letters, she presents a different stance:
“Tis very easy to see they have more liberty than we have, no woman of what rank so ever being permitted to go in the streets without two muslins, one that covers her face all but her eyes and another that hides the whole dress of her head […] You may guess how effectually this disguises them, that there is no distinguishing the great lady from her slave, and ’tis impossible for the most jealous husband to know his wife when he meets her, and no man dare either touch or follow a woman in the street. This perpetual masquerade gives them entire liberty of following their inclinations without danger of discovery” (p. 242).
In addition to the pre-national context, the lack of gender equality ethos in her society allowed Montague to examine women and men relationships in other societies with a less judgmental, more curious eye. “The manners of mankind do not differ so widely as our voyage writers would make us believe”, she writes (p. 243). Spivak warns us from nostalgia for lost origins, and indeed, our look into Montague’s world cannot be separated from the history of colonialism. Nonetheless, learning from women from varied eras, locations and contexts is helpful if we wish to recognize our blind spots.
The burkini affair reflects a core debate in feminist political thought and policymaking, highlighting the urgent necessity to include voices of women from different backgrounds in decision-making processes. In Abu Lughod’s words, we must develop “serious appreciation of differences among women in the world” and consider “our own responsibilities to address the forms of global injustice that are powerful shapers of the worlds in which they find themselves” (2002, p.783).
Shir Berebi is a Masters student of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She works in the field of critical pedagogy and facilitates Israeli-Palestinian dialogue encounters. She is active in various feminist anti-militarist movements as well as co-mobilizer of the anti-pinkwash block – Queers against Pinkwashing in Israel. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Pronouns: she/her.