The images of French police accosting a Muslim woman for dressing too modestly on the beach seem like they're from a different era. These can't be the times we're living in.
But here we are. The laws of some French beach towns frown specifically on a particular form of Islamic modesty, the burkini. French politicians have criticized the burkini in two key ways. The far-right Marine Le Pen finds a way of wrapping the liberated culture of France in conservative language when she says that France should retain the character of the beaches of Bardot. But the more common argument employs left-wing rhetoric. Prime Minister Manuel Valls said, "The burkini is not a new swimsuit fashion trend. It's the translation of a political project for a counter-society based on woman's enslavement."
While French politicians are claiming to use the law to preserve feminist gains from the encroachment of medieval sensibilities, English-language media is aghast at these towns for running afoul of feminism by "telling women what to wear on the beach." French burkini bans are seen as a rearguard action to keep France French. It's racist, they cry.
But it's also secularism run amok.
For English-speaking countries like the U.S., religion that expresses itself in what a person does and believes as an individual, and how they choose to express their devotion to God in their own behavior, is the most licit form of religion. Secularism for English-speaking countries, meanwhile, tends to be about institutions and how they are ruled. Public institutions are scrubbed of ideas that the public associates with religion. Religious motives are stigmatized in political discourse as illegitimate. And, increasingly, private businesses and even religious institutions, if they serve the public, are asked to disown their religious scruples as they provide medical care, education, or other services. Our secularism is about rules and administration.
But in much of continental Europe secularism is about something else. Germany has also started talking about restrictions on the hijab, precisely because it is a symbol of a "counter-society." For French-speaking communities, secularism is also about the character of society. And so the hijab is banned from schools that are expected to socialize students into this society. The understanding of women's bodies expressed by Manuel Valls is a kind of secular public orthodoxy.
There is, of course, some explosively emotional context in France. Native French are being forced to confront the fact that their society has failed to integrate Muslim immigrants to the French way of living. France has suffered two years of Islamist terror incidents, often perpetrated by people who spent much of their lives in France. To many French, the burkini is seen not as an expression of devotion, but as a gesture of separatism. It indicates a person who looks more toward the Persian Gulf for social cues than to la rive gauche. Almost by instinct, the French reached for terms from feminism to denounce this beachwear. Perhaps in another age, when the fault lines of our politics were on gender and class rather than identity and ethnicity, even American feminists of a more Marxist bent would would have said that a woman who willingly wears this garment is suffering from a false consciousness.
The burkini ban is emotional for Muslims living in France as well. The burkini was designed as swimwear for Muslim women who want to comport themselves with the modesty requirements that go with the hijab even while they swim. The French feminist critique of the hijab and the burkini may have no resonance with many of the French Muslims who choose to wear them. In the Middle East, this clothing may be part of a uniform that is imposed by society, and it may signal a woman's conformation to that society's demands. Psychologically, the social act of wearing the hijab must be different in France. There a hijab can also signify independence and pride. Wearing a hijab in France may say, all at once: I am humble before God, and defiant in the face of social expectations.
Most people in the Anglosphere can glibly pretend that how people dress has no effect on society, when of course it does. In America dress is regulated informally, but effectively, by class and what the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville called "common opinion." The French are probably right to sense that something of value in French society is threatened by the religious and social impulses that inspire women to wear the burkini. The appearance of the burkini is in some ways evidence that French society is already divided enough that "common opinion" there lacks the assimilative power it has elsewhere. But everyone else in the world may be right that trying to ban the burkini with the law will only inspire more French Muslims to want to wear it, and divide French society even more.