Last week I visited the south of France and Paris. I was looking forward to a few days relaxation in the midst of the Labour Leadership, Brexit, etc. What I did not expect was to spend so much time talking swim ware.
I lived in France some years ago as an engineer and made a lot of friends. Most of them women of ‘Maghrébin background, ie Muslim North African heritage. They were unhappy, confused, bewildered and threatened by the Burkini controversy which, they told me, was top of the news from morning till night. It made them feel that they were under attack in the land of their birth.
I also spoke with white French friends and acquaintances in the south. I was shocked by what I heard. Where I was staying in the South West of France, the National Front came out ahead in the first round of voting last year, so I was careful who I talked politics with. But these were ‘liberal’ progressives – or so I thought. And yet to my astonishment some found the wearing of a Burkini provocative. Feminists who would have reacted with horror to the idea of a man telling them not to wear a mini-skirt said that a woman wearing a Burkini was a threat. When I asked why a woman’s choice of clothing should impact them I was told it was because of ‘everything that had happened in France in the last eighteen months – Charlie Hebdo, November 13th, Nice…’
I said that I sympathised deeply with the terror and trauma of wholesale mass slaughter instigated by these terrorist attacks. And yet I could not understand how an item of clothing could be held responsible or representative of it. One woman asked what a Burkini actually looked like. “Pretty much exactly the same as the wetsuit surfers in Tynemouth near Newcastle wear on a regular basis.” I said.
The difference between the UK and the French visions of religion, society, integration and diversity have rarely been so brought into focus as with the Burkini ban. Whilst it has been temporarily suspended by a French court, the Burkini ban is actively supported by a former French President as well as some self-styled feminists determined to force their version of liberation on Muslim women. I want to say to my French Muslim female friends and sisters that they are right to be affronted, that I condemn absolutely the imposition of a dress code by anyone on any woman.
But I also want to say to some of the journalists reporting this story that when I wear a bikini, I am not being immodest –the implication of calling a Burkini ‘modest swim ware’. Regardless of whether modesty is a good or bad trait, my modesty, like any woman’s, is a function of my character not my clothing.