Sometimes a bathing suit is just a bathing suit. But not today. Europeans — Muslims, Christians, atheists and others — are fiercely debating the question of what women should be allowed to wear at the beach. It seems like a trivial matter, but it isn’t.
More than a dozen French cities, along with some towns in other European countries, have banned the so-called burkini, a bathing suit designed for Muslim women who want to cover more of their body than a bikini or a regular one-piece bathing suit does.
With that, French authorities, aiming to protect women’s freedoms, have missed their mark by a mile.
Let’s be crystal clear here about two points:
First, women should be allowed to wear what they want. The decision should not be up to men, police, or even society at large. And that should be the case for all women, no matter where they live — whether it is Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran or the French Riviera.
Second, the places where women face the harshest, most oppressive restrictions on that basic expression of human dignity — the right to wear the clothes you choose — is not France or other parts of Western Europe. It is in countries ruled by theocratic regimes; countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, and territories controlled by the so-called Islamic State or ISIS.
So it is a travesty that we are even discussing a violation of that right in France, one of the freest, most liberal countries on earth.
Indeed, the ban on the burkini has handed a victory to Islamists and to other Muslims who want to restrict women’s freedoms. And it has set back the cause of women’s empowerment.
It is already easy to imagine how the ISIS propaganda department will make the most of the image now making the rounds in social media — a Muslim woman on the beach in Nice, surrounded by four male policemen requiring her to take off her burkini.
The picture, the law, the decision, play right into the hands of Islamists who claim the West’s so-called liberation of women is really the opposite, a way to humiliate them and exploit their sexuality.
Meanwhile, the new rules will inevitably produce exactly the opposite of their intended effect. They will make clothing even more of a political statement. They will alienate part of the population rather than encouraging liberalism and integration.
Even setting aside the propaganda fodder it offers extremists, it is simply unacceptable for the government in a modern, liberal democracy (just as it should be anywhere else) to tell people what they should wear. It is particularly galling to see men ordering women on the subject.
The French, as well as other liberal European societies, want to prevent Muslim communities from changing the character of their country. That is a legitimate concern. After all, they fought revolutions and shed blood to create a free nation. But this is the wrong way to go about it.
If they want laws and police involvement to protect their freedoms, they should make it illegal for a father, a husband or a brother to force his daughter, wife or sister to wear restrictive clothing against her will. If an adult woman wants to wear a bikini at the beach in Cannes, she should be allowed to do it.
The law should prohibit men from forcing women to wear a niqab, which allows only a slit for the eyes; a burqa, which drapes over the entire body, including the face; or even a simple hair-covering hijab. Adult women should be allowed to make their own decisions.
When it comes to the face-covering garments, such as the burqa or niqab, I believe the government has a legitimate security claim in wanting individuals in public places to be identifiable.
Beyond security concerns, I find the niqab and burqa deeply dehumanizing, not least because they relegate women to beings without an identity. The burqa, common in Afghanistan, is also cumbersome and impractical, making it more difficult to for someone to see.
The right of women to wear comfortable clothing of their own choosing is, in my view, a most fundamental of human rights. Yet it is a right that is violated every day in many countries.
Millions of women endure draconian clothing restrictions every day of their lives. And while Islam dictates that women dress modestly, the definition of modesty is up for interpretation. Plus, the interpreters are usually men.
In Saudi Arabia, women are required to cover up with a dark, loose cloak. Saudi women often wear beautiful, fashionable clothing, but in public they cover up, whether they want to or not. In Iran, women chafe under requirements that they keep their hair covered and wear some type of an overcoat or cloak. In both countries, religious police guard against violations, a deeply offensive affront, particularly to modern women.
In territories where ISIS rules, women are subjected to lashings if they wear the wrong outfits. They are required to wear double-layered veils, niqabs, full-body chadors, as well as gloves.
In all these places, summer temperatures add even more physical distress to the insult.
In many countries where the law does not create formal restrictions, social pressures have the same effect, forcing women to wear clothes they might not otherwise choose. It is not uncommon to see men on vacation wearing shorts, while women swelter wrapped in yards of dark cloth.
In Egypt, for example, social pressures have made the hijab much more prevalent. But that has not been enough to prevent a pandemic of sexual harassment. A U.N. survey in 2013 found 99% of Egyptian women said they had been victims of harassment, and that was true even for women wearing the face-covering niqab.
All this suggests that if the French want to free women from the oppression of restrictive clothing, they should promote freedom. They should make the case for why everyone, including all women of all religions, should have the freedom to wear what they want. This not only would send a signal of support to women living in countries where they experience much harsher repression, but might mean we see fewer burkinis on Europe’s beaches — for the right reason, because people were free to choose.
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.