The burkini is just another swimsuit, the burqa is just another form of apparel, the headscarf is just another head gear and the hijab is just a choice!
The French slogan of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ has lost its meaning in the very country of its birth. In a move that grossly criminalises clothing, many French cities have banned the burkini. This communally – tinged move targeted against the Muslim population who usually favour a modest version of the swimsuit commonly called the ‘burkini,’ has garnered immense backlash and criticism on social media from the rest of the world. France’s predominant argument is that the burkini violates France’s century-old commitment to promote secularism in public life.
The Ban on the Burkini, quite evidently, is a part of the Islamophobia developing in the West. It has been justified by some groups by calling the ‘Hijab’, or the burkini in this case, patriarchal and oppressive.
This issue needs to be addressed from various angles. A large section opposing the view has claimed that the ban had been initiated solely as a part of the anti-Islamic or Islamophobic attitude of the French Government. Earlier, France had faced severe criticism regarding the ban on the use of the headscarf. Others opine that using the garb of feminism to justify the curtailment of the rights of Muslim women to dress as they please is ridiculous and instrumental.
Still others have supported the opposition meted against the ban. However, these groups claim that while one supports the rights of muslim women to wear the clothes of their choice, the question of choice must also be dealt with in cases where some muslim countries do not provide this choice to women at all. Crucial to this debate then, are the voices of the muslim women itself.
Hijab, which literally means, ‘to conceal’ or ‘to cover’, has been perceived by many as regressively patriarchal and oppressive thereof. It has been claimed by those who oppose it that the hijab is forced upon muslim women by the men in their lives. However, a stereotyping of a muslim women’s choice of clothes cannot be a part of the healthy criticism under feminism. A closer understanding is required in an attempt to bring forth the marginalised view of the muslim women themselves.
A large section of hijab – donning women claim that they have ‘chosen’ to wear it. It is an independent choice which is based on their belief in the religion they have chosen to follow. It is also claimed in support of hijab that a view of feminism which adheres to the idea of liberating women’s bodies by dictating them what to wear is not inclusive. It is, in fact, another way of telling women what to do in ways very similar to how patriarchy dictated women. According to an essayist Hiba Ahmad,” I want people to know that when I dress up the muslim way, it is because I am fighting a systematic oppression of women in which women’s bodies are sexualised and objectified”. For these women, the hijab should be seen as a part of many ways in which feminism is trying to empower and liberate women. A large number of intellectuals, entrepreneurs, and athletes are muslim women who choose to wear the hijab. It is true that many hijab wearing women have been left out, but the example of Egyptian and Iranian athletes like Ibtihaj Muhammad, who won the USA a bronze medal, and Kimia Alizadeh from Iran goes on to show the scope of participation and empowerment largely ignored.
The ignorance of the availability of these platforms for muslim women or a denial of it by men, and not their religion is to be addressed. It is not unknown that the authority of interpreting religious scripts has been largely given to men because of patriarchy. A lack of participation of muslim women in productive opportunities should then be seen in this context. Many muslim women have been kept away from the scope of egalitarianism and gender equality in their religion through patriarchy.
Criminalising any form of clothing, whether considered promiscuous or modest, is wrong. It entails that the state is infringing upon the personal choices of its population. The interests of leaders should not be achieved at the cost of personal freedom. Instead, they should reflect the voices of the public while not marginalising the numerically weaker sections. Secular France shouldn’t call for the transparence of religions, but rather the acceptance of religious diversity. Burkini or bikini, to free the nipple or to conceal it- it is for a woman to choose. However, women have to make aware choices because patriarchy is not a great choice after all.