The Great Burkini Debate

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This is Mozart, my new feathered friend who has been my company this past week. There is no great reason for a photo of Mozart other than I think he is beautiful and that it is pretty cool to be able to share your breakfast with a parrot. He has also been my companion while listening to the great burkini debate. You might think that the conversation has been one sided but actually Mozart had much to say on the topic.

Today the French government decided that it was not the done thing to ban the burkini after all but it has thrown many discussions up into the air and left more room to polarise the nations. That is probably their intent after all, rather than anything to do with what anyone was wearing. There was some weak point about someone hiding a bomb under their burkini which they wouldn’t be able to do with a swimming costume but then you could stick a bomb in your sandwiches if you were that keen on blowing the beach up so that doesn’t really hold. There was another argument about it being unsanitary to go swimming fully clothed but given the state of the mediterranean sea, I’d say it was a good idea to keep your clothes on. The other argument was that it is not the done thing to do in France which is a free country and women should not be forced to cover up their bodies and this is wear the argument really kicked off.

Nobody should be told what to wear and what not to wear and it pressed people’s buttons all over the place, especially women. Us women have been told what to do for centuries and we are quite clearly bored of it and rightly so. If you wear too many clothes, it’s not right. If you take them off then it’s not right. Somewhere in the middle between loads of modesty and not enough modesty and then everyone is happy until the rules change again and we have to have more arguments. It wasn’t that long ago when it was a scandal for women to wear trousers, when even shapely legs on tables were considered a disgrace. I’m not quite sure how anyone can get uncontrollably excited by shapely table legs but clearly that must have been the thing then and it is the ‘thing’ still in many places. A glimpse of flesh and all hell breaks loose.

This is where I have a bit of a problem with the the great burkini debate. Comparisons have been made between being too undressed and being too dressed. The difference is that it is a very real thing for many women that if they are not dressed enough then their safety, livelihood and, often, lives are at risk. A comparison cannot be made between the two. There have been photos going around the internet of a woman being told to get dressed and of another woman being told to get undressed. The difference is that in one scenario she seriously risks losing her life. One is policed in a way that will affect a woman’s right to marriage, education, safety, dignity and employability. The other is policed legally leading to a fine and public humiliation. Both are utterly unacceptable but the image risks minimising the very serious plight that is the reality of many women. That we find the image of a woman being forced to undress by a bunch of armed men outrageous and this leads to an uproar, despicable as it is, still gives me hope that we will never stand by and let this happen.

I have no idea what it is like to live within a community where your very life is at stake based upon what you wear. I cannot begin to imagine this as I have been lucky enough for this to have not been an issue in my lifetime. Enforcing the burkini ban, even though it has been dismissed the scars will be left, risks driving underground the most vulnerable and silent. Many women have stepped forward to talk about their freedom of choice in wearing the hijab (and I’m sorry if I’m using all the wrong words and terms) and it has been wonderful for their stories to have been heard. The women that we will not hear from, though, are the voiceless, the ones who are not wearing the hijab or burka through choice but through coercion and lack of choice. These women will never get to be heard and if they had any notion of being able to reach out to a community that might be able to offer an alternative, that would be wiped out by feeling that they are no longer able to go out in public wearing what they have to wear. If they are not able to wear what they have to wear to go to school or university then they will no longer have an education and will be driven further underground than they already are unless their families are able to afford to educate them privately. And this is meant to be liberating? For who exactly?

To accept different forms of clothing does not mean that all that goes with it has to be accepted. A weak comparison, but a comparison all the same, is the Euro debate. I voted to remain but that does not mean that I think that everything about Europe is wonderful and hunky dory. In the same way, I would never condone a ban on people wearing what they want/have to wear but that does not mean that we should ignore all that goes with it. There runs the very real risk of all of the narrative that accompanies clothing being brushed to one side in the furore. For example, it is said that FGM is reported, on average, every two hours in the UK. Every two hours. Every two hours a child is subjected to this in a country where it is against the law. This really is something that should be tackled and shouted about and never ever accepted. These are the issues that sit silently behind the great burkini debate, cloaked in cultural worlds that many feel hesitant to venture into. Just because it is right to oppose the banning  of the burkini/hijab/burka does not mean that it is also right to defend their use. We oppose the ban because nobody, but nobody, tells any woman what they should and should not be wearing. We do not defend their use because there are still a whole list of cultural issues that we are hesitant to tackle that do not have a place in anybody’s world. Of course a ban is ridiculous, and a whole other list of superlatives, but it is also important to acknowledge the oppression behind certain ways of dressing.

If we are to defend the Muslim woman being publicly humiliated and intimidated then we, and that is men and women, must also defend Muslim women being oppressed in their homes, being forced into arranged marriages, being discriminated against in the multitude of ways that is possible. It is a bit like the Black Lives Matter debate and then people popping up with the All Lives Matter response. Yes, of course all lives matter but to dismiss the debate is to dismiss the discrimination and history of people who, increasingly, are not able to have a voice without there being very real consequences.  Live and let live but let us  not ignore the potentially dark and oppressive stuff that is lurking in the background that comes from any angle whatsoever.

Those were the thoughts that me and Mozart had this week. There are pressures from society on the importance of beauty, hiding it or showing it, all over the place. Some pressures can hinder so called progress – just think of something as simple as a bloke having to wear a tie in the workplace – and other pressures have far darker consequences. Think of Mozart and his beautiful feathers. He might have a thing or two to say about his family history. Would he be quite so prized if his feathers were beige all over? Beauty is a thing so glorious, it has inspired art, poetry, sculptures and song since the beginning of time. Why does it have to be twisted into such a weapon of power and persecution? Women have been forever dammed for being too beautiful or not beautiful enough. Let us hope that the great burkini debate will be an opportunity to hear the voices of those who have not yet sung out loud. It has been wonderful seeing women coming together to speak out, may the voices get stronger and stronger.

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