A Philosopher's Blog

Birkini Ban

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on August 29, 2016

In response to terrorist attacks, some French politicians sprang into action and imposed ordinances aimed at banning the burkini. For those who are not theological fashionistas, a burkini is essentially a more fashionable wet suit intended primarily for Moslem women who want to swim in public while remaining modestly dressed. The burkini is in some ways reminiscent of women’s swimwear of the early 1900s, but far less likely to result in death by drowning. The burkini is also popular with women who want to swim but would prefer to lower their chances of getting skin cancer.

To be a bit more specific about the ban, the ordinances did not name the burkini, but rather forbid bathing attire that is not “appropriate,” that fails to be “respectful of good morals and of secularism,” and does not follow “hygiene and security rules.” There is a certain irony in the fact that being scantily clad on the beach was once considered in the West to be inappropriate and disrespectful of good morals. Now it is claimed that being well covered is not respectful of good morals.

While I am not a legal scholar, the specifications seem rather odd. I would think that appropriate attire that is “respectful of good morals” would be one that covers up the naughty bits—assuming that covering the bits is the right thing to do. While not an expert on hygiene and security, I do not see how a burkini would be any more a threat to hygiene or security than other common swimming attire such as bikinis, speedos, and wet suits. After all, the typically burkini is effectively a wet suit. There is also the fact that Christian nuns who dress conservatively for the beach are not targeted; presumably their attire is in accord with both hygiene and security.

As with France’s 2011 burqa ban, these ordinances seem aimed at creating the impression that a leader is doing something, to distract the masses from real problems and to appeal to religious intolerance and xenophobia. Since women going to swim in a burkini are unlikely to present a threat to public safety, there seems to be no legitimate basis for these ordinances in regards to preventing harm to the public. And this is the only rational moral justification for laws that forbid people from dressing or acting certain ways.

It could be countered that ordinances are actually intended to protect the women from oppression; that it aims to prevent women from being forced to cover up if they do not wish to do so.  While many Westerners probably assume that Moslem women are all forced to cover up, this is not the case. Some women apparently do this by choice and regard the right to do so as protected by the Western notion of freedom. While some might be skeptical about how free the choice is, it is reasonable to think that some women would, in fact, freely decide to cover up in this way. After all, if some women are willing to show lots of skin in public, then it hardly seems unusual that some women would rather show far less. There are certainly women who prefer modest attire and women who willingly embrace religious traditions. For example, some nuns who visit beaches dress very modestly; but they seem to do some from choice. Presumably the same can be true of Moslem women.

Some might argue that women who cover up too much and those that cover up too little are all victims of male oppression and are not really making free choices. While it is reasonable to believe that social and cultural factors impact dressing behavior, it seems unreasonably to claim that all these women are incapable of choice and are mere victims of the patriarchy. In any case, to force someone to dress or not dress a certain way because of some ideology about the patriarchy would also be oppressive.

It might also be argued that just as there are laws against being naked in public, there should also be laws against being improperly over-covered on the beach. After all, a woman would (probably) get in trouble for walking the streets of France with only her face, feet and hands covered, so why should a woman be allowed to go to the beach with only her face, hands and feet exposed? Both, it could be argued, create public distractions and violate the general sense of appropriate dress.

While this might have some appeal, such ordinances would need to applied in a consistent manner. As such, if a Christian woman were spotted walking the beach in jeans and a shirt, she would have to be removed from the beach or forced to strip. The obvious counter is that the ordinances are not used to target anyone but Moslem women in birkinis, although the secular part of the ordinances would allow targeting any attire with a non-secular connection. This would, obviously, ban nuns from the beach if they wore religiously linked attire, such as modest swimsuits.

This sort of ban would be a clear attack on religious freedom, which is problematic. While I am not particularly religious, I do recognize the importance of the freedom of faith and its expression. While there can be legitimate grounds for limiting such expressions (like banning human sacrifices), when a practice does not create harm, then there seems to be no real ground for banning it. As such, the ban in France seems to be completely unjustified and also an infringement of both the freedom of choice and the freedom of religion.

While some might point out that some Muslim countries do not allow such freedoms, my easy and obvious reply is that these countries are in the wrong and we should certainly not want to be like them. Two wrongs do not, obviously, make a right.

Lastly, it could be argued that the bikini is a very serious matter—the bikini is rejection of French culture and an explicit statement in support of Islam against France. The challenge is, of course, to provide evidence that this is the intention behind wearing the bikini. While attire can be used to make a statement, thinking that wearing a birkini must be an attack on France is on par with thinking that a person who eats a Big Mac or hummus in public in France is also attacking France. Even if a person is wearing the birkini as a statement, then it would seem to fall under freedom of expression. While it might offend some, offense is not grounds for imposing on this freedom.

While there is some appeal to the idea that people should assimilate into the culture, there is the obvious question of why one view of the culture should be granted hegemony over everything. That is, why the burkini cannot be as accepted as the bikini, why Islam cannot be as accepted as Methodism. Going back to the food analogy, it would be unreasonable to require French citizens to only eat food that is regarded as properly French and to see people who eat other food as a threat.

In closing, the birkini bans are unwarranted and morally unacceptable.

 

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