What item of beachwear do you think would be incompatible with British values? As a serious proposition the question seems absurd, so you’d probably reply that those half-thongs worn by male members of an Essex-based reality show a couple of years back came pretty close.
In France yesterday the prime minister, Manuel Valls, who is for 364 days of the year a sensible man, declared that the burkini was un-French. This costume covers the body, legs and hair of a female swimmer — and M Valls deemed it an encroachment of religion into the secular world of the public beach. “The burkini is not a new range of swimwear, a fashion,” said Mr Valls. “It is the expression of a political project, a counter-society, based notably on the enslavement of women.” He didn’t want the state to ban it as it had the burka (back in 2011) but he was content that local councils should do.
Also yesterday we discovered that the first fines have been handed out to miscreant burkini wearers in the resort of Cannes, where the council banned the garment last month. Four women, aged between 29 and 57 and accompanied by children, were apprehended, fined thirty-odd quid and gained a police record.
It is easy for a liberal like me to make fun of this apparent French absurdity. Where, I immediately asked myself, had French nuns been taking their seaside walks since the Republic was created? Would they now be banned from paddling?
You don’t judge a book by its cover, a girl by her bondage trousers, a boy by his Mohican, a Goth by its boots. Back in 1970, growing my hair as was the insurgent fashion, I went to the Sidmouth Folk Festival to find a proportion of the town’s pubs and cafés sporting the sign “No Hairies”. Given the choice of cutting my hair or resenting these establishments, I opted for resentment.
The history of the authorities proscribing or prescribing clothing is not a happy one. Back in 1274 Edward I brought in a Statute of Jewry requiring all Jews above the age of seven to wear a yellow patch on their coats, 6in long and 3in wide. We know how that one goes. So today in Britain practically the only person to fall foul of a state dress code (albeit a completely informal one) is the Naked Rambler.
As, I said, this argument is almost too easy so it is necessary to admit that I don’t like the burka, largely for the same reasons that Laurence Rossignol, minister for women’s rights in France, dislikes the burkini. “It has the same logic as the burka,” she said recently, “to hide women’s bodies in order to control them.”
I loathe the use of the word “modesty” to suggest that women should cover themselves up so as not to somehow inflame men. It is hard to see this differential dress code as something other than part of a vision of women as male property, implying “don’t look at her, she’s spoken for”. It also establishes its vicious counterpart: “She’s not modest, so she’s fair game.” I felt a sense of joy when the women of the Syrian town town of Manbij, liberated from Isis this week, burnt their black burkas.
Yet if I completely reject the idea of enforced “modesty”, I cavil at the notion of enforced exposure. We can speculate that some women in burkinis might have been induced by community shaming or family pressure to wear them, but we don’t know that; there’s plenty of evidence that some wearers put them on out of choice, sometimes even out of defiance. And yes, Mr Valls, burkinis too can be a fashion statement, as we have learnt from those British Muslim women who donned the hijab in the Noughties.
No, I am not in favour of people with covered faces working in, say, hospitals or as classroom teachers. I am against allowing religious (or political) pedantries to interfere with the wellbeing of fellow citizens. More of that goes on than we like to imagine, and much of it has nothing to do with the Muslim communities.
However there is a much bigger problem with the Cannes proscription. Whatever Mr Valls and Ms Rossignol might think, the local mayor’s reasoning for his ban was nothing to do with women’s rights. The explanation by David Lisnard, of the right-wing Republican Party, was this: “Beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation, when France and places of worship are currently the target of terrorist attacks, is liable to create risks of disrupting public order.”
Think about that. Think about who, exactly, is supposed to be disrupting public order here. It won’t be the burkini wearers, one imagines. There is no known case of a person in a burkini, crazed by excessive Lycra or appalled by Speedos, lashing out at fellow bathers. What Mr Lisnard is surely saying is that burkini wearers might become the targets of disruption. Which, given that he also trumpets that burkinis are themselves “symbols of Islamic extremism”, is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. He has put them on a level with, say, Isis-flag-designed beach towels and toy suicide belts.
In other words, according to Mr Lisnard, the very wearing of a garment might provoke attacks, so it must be stopped. Ironically this is the mirror image of the “men must be protected from the sight of women” logic of misogynistic religions and societies.
This is also the poisonous logic that sent Jews into ghettos “for their own protection”, blamed rape victims for their attackers’ violence and blamed victims of terrorism for the actions of the “provoked” terrorists. It is the logic of someone who, listening to Nadiya Hussain describe her history of being called names, and being pushed and shoved by our fellow Brits, responds that maybe she should take off her headscarf.
Almost as bad is that this ban does something even worse. It alienates people completely unnecessarily. No problem is solved by the proscription, but new ones are created. Already there have been violent incidents on French beaches because of responses to the burkini. Those seeking trouble have practically received an inducement from the authorities to harass others based on nothing more than their costume.
Do we seriously imagine that a young Muslim — a child of the fined women perhaps — witnessing this or experiencing it, is less likely to be radicalised as a result? And is this too added to the great list of grievances that help to grease the jihadist engine? When your enemy is determined to inflict wounds upon you, it is perverse to add some of your own.
David Aaronovitch, is a British journalist, broadcaster, and author.