by Sara Khan, first published in "The Telegraph" on Wednesday 24th August 2016
Who would have thought a woman, lying on a beach and minding her own business, could present such a threat to the French state?
Bu today, pictures have emerged of four armed police officers – armed with pepper spray; batons in hand – confronting a woman doing just that and ordering her to remove some of her clothing. Namely, her burkini.
Violating both her dignity, and freedom in deciding what adorns on her body, the woman is seen dutifully and humiliatingly removing the blue tunic in front of countless other sunbathers – some of whom reportedly shouted ‘go home’ and applauded, as her daughter wept – in the name of “women’s rights” and “protection of the public.” The ban on the garment was announced by the Mayor of Cannes, David Lisnard, earlier this month in the wake of the Nice lorry attack, which killed 85 people on July 14. A number of women have already been fined and arrested for breaching it.
As France finds itself in the grip of emergency law brought about by the numerous Islamist-inspired terror attacks that have plagued the country in recent times, you would think the authorities would have more pressing concerns on their mind than the burkini, which as many have pointed out is really not dissimilar to a wetsuit.
France’s intelligence and police agencies have found themselves severely criticised having missed vital clues that could have thwarted terrorist acts. From the Charlie Hebdo incident to the Paris attacks in November 2015, the authorities knew some of the attackers – but had failed to intervene effectively.
The threat to France and its population by extremists requires a sophisticated, multi-pronged counter-terrorism approach, which must include building trust and co-operation with the country’s Muslim communities – especially if they are to deal with homegrown jihadists.
Yet it appears France believes the way to “protect the population” as Nice’s local Mayor Ange-Pierre Vivoni argued is by banning a swimsuit. Going further, highlighting the join-the-disjointed-dots approach France has in countering terror, a Nice tribunal ruled on Monday that the ban was “necessary, appropriate and proportionate” to prevent public disorder.
Rather than making war against the jihadists as France keeps telling us, they appear to have made war against Muslim women’s bodies and agency. This, after all, is a country that already has a ban on women wearing full-face veils in public. And, ironically, just like the jihadists who seek to control, deny and prevent women from making their own choices, France too has now made women’s bodies a key battleground instead of standing up for the values of ‘liberte, egalite, fraternite’ it claims to hold.
France has fallen right into the Islamists’ trap: abandon your values that we despise.
Sadly the French authorities fail to see this; and how these pictures will be used as propaganda by terrorists. Banning the burkini doesn’t really achieve much apart from protecting a few illiberal people’s sensibilities; what it does do however is undermine France’s counter-terror efforts at a time when it matters most.
I would be very interested to know the statistics of how many burkini-clad women the French police have arrested for plotting a terror attack while lying on a beach, gazing at the clouds as their children splash about in the sea. I doubt such information will be forthcoming.
But we know this is not about the burkini. It’s not even about women’s rights. It’s about the religious identity of those women who wear them. It’s about the very presence of Muslim women and Islam in France, and the unease some have towards that religion.
France, while a secular country, appears to struggle with Article Nine of the European Convention on Human Rights: the freedom to hold and manifest religious belief. The manifestation of religious belief can be curtailed under strict conditions – where the freedoms of others could be compromised or in the interests of public order.
Promoting hatred, violence and discrimination in the name of religion, as many Islamist preachers do, would be legitimate grounds for curbing the so-called religious rights of such individuals. Banning a swimsuit, is not a reasonable or proportionate response.
I hope France’s feminists stand on the side of these Muslim women, and not with the authorities or Islamists – both ironically two sides of the same coin in seeking to enforce their clothing choices on women. And I hope French government officials recognise how they are undermining not only their own values but also their counter-terror efforts at this critical time.
Sara Khan is the author of The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism (now available with Saqi Books), co-authored with Tony McMahon. She is also the co-director and founder of Inspire, a counter-extremism and women’s rights organisation.