By Amanda Taub
WASHINGTON — There is something inherently head-spinning about the so-called burkini bans that are popping up in coastal France. The obviousness of the contradiction — imposing rules on what women can wear on the grounds that it’s wrong for women to have to obey rules about what women can wear — makes it clear that there must be something deeper going on.
“Burkinis” are, essentially, full-body swimsuits that comply with Islamic modesty standards, and on Wednesday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls of France waded into the raging debate over the bans in some of the country’s beach towns, denouncing the rarely seen garb as part of the “enslavement of women.”
This, of course, is not really about swimwear. Social scientists say it is also not primarily about protecting Muslim women from patriarchy, but about protecting France’s non-Muslim majority from having to confront a changing world: one that requires them to widen their sense of identity when many would prefer to keep it as it was.
“These sorts of statements are a way to police what is French and what is not French,” said Terrence G. Peterson, a professor at Florida International University who studies France’s relationship with Muslim immigrants and the Muslim world.
While this battle over identity is rising now in the wake of terrorist attacks, it has been raging in one form or another in French society for decades, Professor Peterson said. What seems to be a struggle over the narrow issue of Islamic dress is really about what it means to be French.
During France’s colonial era, when it controlled vast Muslim regions, the veil became a “hypercharged symbol,” Professor Peterson said. Veiling was treated as a symbol of Muslims’ backwardness, and Frenchwomen’s more flexible standards of dress were seen as a sign of French cultural superiority, views that helped to justify colonialism.
Colonialism set France up for the identity crisis it is experiencing today by ingraining a sense of French national identity as distinct from and superior to Muslim identities — and, at the same time, holding out the promise of opportunity to colonized Muslims, who began migrating in large numbers to France. The resulting clash has often played out in debates over clothing.
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