The burkini ban in Cannes is as illiberal as it is counterproductive and oppressive. It plays to the gallery and targets Muslim women who are already some of the most severely disadvantaged in Europe. As a British secular Muslim woman, I am surveying European society post the EU referendum with increasing uncertainty. In fact, I’ve never been more conscious of my difference: my skin, my background, my place in society and my sense of belonging.
Across Europe and other Western countries, there is a rhetoric about Islam which depicts it as a monolithic faith: all-pervasive, backward, anti-modern, anti-women and anti-progress. It reflects the rise in Islamophobia across Europe and, when directed at Muslim women, is coupled with a deep-rooted sexism. The combination of these two things, neither of which are new, but which pose a unique set of challenges for Muslim women across Europe, has been exacerbated by the continuing rise of the political right. This movement exploits the fear of the “other”, the “foreigner”, whoever this may be.
The intense fervour of anti-immigration rhetoric and acute xenophobia means that Islamophobia across Europe is a racialised issue. The visibility of Muslims who are more likely to be of colour makes the boundary between race and faith hate crime increasingly blurred. The press has latched on to this: they both shape this rhetoric as well as feed the anti-Muslim frenzy. Kelvin McKenzie’s comments on Fatima Manji is a case in point. To suggest that a news reporter shouldn’t report on certain topics because of her faith would be a clear case of discrimination, but this is now the acceptable face of journalism. Anti-Muslim hatred is the respectable face of bigotry.
This discrimination is deeply structural. A recent report by the European Network Against Racism noted that Muslim women “suffer from the same inequalities as other women, but additional factors such as perceived religion or ethnicity deepen these gender gaps. They are also more likely to be the victims of hate crime compared to Muslim men. In both employment discrimination and hate crime, the headscarf acts as a trigger, because it is a visible marker of a Muslim woman’s identity".
This is not an isolated incident - it is a manifestation of a group of people being demonised, marginalised and 'othered'
It is in this European political and social context that the burkini ban in Cannes must be seen. This is not an isolated incident – it is a manifestation of a group of people being demonised, marginalised and “othered”. It illustrates a political class targeting women who are most vulnerable to hatred and racism: those at the intersection of race, faith and gender. For the French, it is a kneejerk and counterproductive way to respond to the horrific terrorist attacks they have been subjected to. Yet it also follows previous laws which banned all religious symbols in public places, but was thinly disguised to target Muslim women. In some ways, it is sadly predictable and consistent with French laws being used to divide communities.
The justification for the ban – “In France, one does not come to the beach dressed to display one’s religious convictions” – is illiberal and oppressive. Indeed, the fact that it isolates one specific group and garment makes this particularly oppressive. It adds to the intense scrutiny and fetishisation of Muslim women’s clothes.
It also seems downright bizarre. The ban means that Muslim women who are observing their faith will be prevented from going swimming, which really is nonsensical. It divides people by faith, race and culture. It has the opposite result of bringing communities together. I'm reminded of the Norwegian response to the Anders Breivik massacre: we will have “more democracy, more openness and more humanity". To encounter hatred, but not capitulate to the populist response, takes great strength.
One of the unintended consequences is that Muslim women, who the French government should be engaging with about how to address alienation and inequality within some parts of Muslim society, are now being silenced. It is an opportunity missed.
Engaging with Muslim women would be a way for the French government to build bridges, to listen and to create a society that embraces difference. The truth is you cannot legislate to stamp out difference or placate one section of society. It is illogical and incoherent, and merely alienates and divides groups.
Addressing hatred with “more openness and more humanity” really does make sense.