Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sarkozy, Burqas, and The French Birkini

Should people be forced to wear bikinis and/or swim trunks at public pools?

That's the question on anyone's mind after reading about "Carole," a 35-year-old woman living in France who was prohibited from entering the public pool because she was wearing a birkini (which is basically like a full-body swimsuit that many Muslim women are beginning to wear.) Apparently, Carole's beliefs prevent her from wearing a more Westernized female swimsuit (such as a bikini) while at a public pool, and she would prefer to wear this full body suit instead. The lifeguard at the pool, however, told her she could not as the pool rules state that women must wear a "swimsuit" and that mean must wear "trunks" rather than regular shorts while at the pool. Already, there is a problem with his preventing her from entering the pool, seeing as how a birkini IS a kind of swimsuit (albeit a bit less traditional than, say, a bathing suit from a Victoria's Secret catalog.) However, she was told that her suit simply would not do because it would bring in too much bacteria in to the pool, and that it was a matter of hygiene. Now, why exactly would this be a problem? I would assume that at a public pool, chlorine would be used. The article does not state this, but I would also assume that she was not rolling around in dirt before she wanted to enter the pool. I'm not sure if she wore this birkini while walking to the pool (without anything else covering her), or if she changed when she got to the pool center. I can understand perhaps if all she wore on her (long? short?) trip from home to the pool was the birkini, because perhaps one would collect some dirt along the way. But then, wouldn't that happen to anyone who came to the pool? It doesn't seem anyone else was stopped and hosed down before entering the pool. So it seems that Carole alone was targeted for this kind of harassment. Why is this?

In recent months, there was already quite a stir in France due to Sarkozy's backing of a proposition to ban the use of burkas in the country. Apparently, many individuals disapprove of burqas because they feel it is a part of a radical Islam they would prefer not to have in their country. I can see how burqas can be seen as a symbol of chauvinism and a religiously-fueled patriarchy, which holds women as lower-class citizens who should have no public identity. But the use of a burqa in a country like Afghanistan is clearly not the same thing as the use of a burqa in a country like France. Afghan women were forced to wear burqas, and while they are free to no longer wear them, many still continue to do so. Is it because they want to? Or is it due to societal pressures which continue? These are valid questions. But in France, where (to my knowledge) the burqa has never been an article of clothing that women were forced to wear (either due to law or cultural/societal pressure), can one really make an argument that women should not be allowed to wear it? The feminist in me doesn't understand why anyone who doesn't have to wear a burqa would want to wear one and hopes for the day when people no longer find it necessary to wear, but the anthropologist in me realizes that there are many different reasons as to why one would want to wear one, and that we should respect the wishes of these individuals.

Sarkozy and the other French officials who are publicly decrying the use of burqas due to some of the negative connotations they might bring would be wise then to eliminate any other clothing which might have some negative historical connotations as well. It seems to me that Muslim women are being attacked for a simple choice of clothing, which is completely unfair. These women are not fighting for non-Muslim women in France to be forced in to wearing burqas, so why should they be forced not to wear them if they so choose? Why is a woman like Carole, who is obviously trying to assimilate her beliefs by wearing the birkini, then be forced out of a public pool? Who is she offending?

I don't think that the use of burqas (or in Carole's case - birkinis) is simple a matter of "burqas are oppressive so let's just get rid of them." Change takes time and because burqas have been around for centuries, I don't see them disappearing just yet. I also don't see it as fair to ban one person's choice of clothing over another (should certain sects of Christian women - who cover their head for church then be stripped of the veils they wear? Is it a matter of private versus public life? Should nuns give up their habits? Isn't that oppressive - we don't see priests covering their heads, do we? Etc, etc, etc.) I understand that perhaps it isn't fair to compare one to the other, and that there has been a lengthy history of violence toward women who did not want to wear their burqas in certain cultures. But creating a law against the usage of burqas is not only intolerant, it may force some women to retreat to countries where the use of burqas is standard, and where perhaps their daughters (who were originally choosing not to have to wear burqas like their mothers) will now be forced in to wearing them.

It's a slipper slope, and France should know better than to try to implement this kind of zero-tolerance policy.

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