When I was a child I used to watch as my mom would secretly go through my sister's closet when she wasn't home—throwing away any jeans that she had purposely ripped or written on. Once she found out, my sister would get angry and sometimes cry, telling me that my mom had violated her privacy and that at 15 she should be able to wear what she wants. I was 11 years old, but I clearly remember the feeling of injustice felt by my sister (I was never into ripped jeans so I did not suffer the same calamity).
Often grounded for breaking clothing rules, my sister began wearing what my parents wanted before leaving the house and would then go to a friends place and change into another set of clothes before she got to her final destination. Although the stakes are much higher, France's latest attempt to control what Muslim women are wearing reminded me of these childhood scenes of wild fights between family members as to who was wearing what and allowed to go where.
Following the 2010 French high court's decision to uphold the banning of the face veil, new
and distressing images of Muslim women in France being forced to strip off their burkinis and handed fines by armed officers have caused an uproar. There was even a Wear What You Want protest in front of the French embassy in London this morning where protesters brought sand and flotation devices—rightly ridiculing the burkini ban.
French municipalities have now taken it upon themselves to try and de-Islamize their beaches by making Muslim women the targets of their racism and xenophobia by launching a campaign against the burkini and implementing laws that ban the all enveloping swimwear and although France's high court overturned the ban, it still send the message that Muslim women have no place in French society.
Invented in 2004, the burkini, a wet-suit like outfit which covers the entire body and, according to its founder and manufacturer, Aheda Zanetti, was created "to give women freedom, not to take it away."
More than a dozen of France's beach towns had banned the burkini, citing that the swimming outerwear disturbs France's secular foundation. French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, even voiced his support for the ban by saying the burkini was "not compatible with the values of the French Republic." And the banning of this garment is now calling into question the very fabric of French society.
France is hardly the only country to wrestle with the burka. The niqab became a hotly debated subject in Canada when then prime minister, Stephen Harper, said the full facial covering was "rooted in a culture that is anti-women," arguing that it was not a part of Canadian values and that women should not be allowed to wear it while taking their citizenship oaths. The fight went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada where judges ruled the women could wear whatever they liked while taking their oaths. Launched during Canada's most recent federal election, the ban was clearly an attempt by the Harper government to try and win votes —but it backfired. As a Muslim woman, I understand very well the politics of divisiveness and was left asking if there is a two-tier form of citizenship in this country and if I will ever be considered a Canadian. Full stop.
The brouhaha over the burkini in France reminded me of my own sartorial sacrifices while in an Islamic republic.
Unlike France, which tries to de-veil women as part of its liberalization process, Iran forcibly veils them as part of its Islamization process. The first time I visited family there was in 1999. It was also the first time I had experienced the juvenile feeling of being told what to wear by the state.
Although Muslim, I had never worn an Islamic head covering before. In fact, one of the main reasons my parents immigrated to Canada was because my mother refused to forcibly cover her hair after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.
I was unsure as to how to wrap my head. There are myriad ways of covering one's head. Would I go full head covering including my ears and neck? Or would I simply have it draped across my shoulders and covering only half my head exposing a little tuft in the front? My cousins were all wearing Chanel scarves and wrapping them in a way that made them look like a vacationing Natalie Wood. I refused. I refused to make pretty something that was imposed on me. It was not just a benign piece of cloth, nor was it a chance for me to express myself fashionably.
Apart from the uncomfortable fact that it was 42 degrees celsius in Iran in August and I was wearing way too much clothing for my own well being, I felt like an imposter with the scarf on my head. Only wearing it because I may be hauled off to prison and not because of my own religiosity. Meanwhile, massive billboards and murals all over the capital city of Tehran told me that it was a sign of my modesty and that it was for my own protection against unwanted male attention. However, the male attention was there anyway and then some.
The absurdity ensued when I went with family to visit the Caspian Sea. It was the first time that I had seen fully clothed women bobbing up and down in the water. I couldn't do it. It felt ridiculous.
In Iran, the veil is an imposed negotiation with the state. You can't participate in society without it. You can't go to school. You can't get a job. You can't even dine in a restaurant and although both France and Iran are attempting to control women's bodies and their attire, only Iran does so through lashes, and imprisonment.
I often wonder why the same people who are so up in arms about the burkini debacle in France, do not give a second thought to the mandatory veiling of women in Iran? It is important to remember that as women in France are fighting to be able to wear the burkini, in other parts of the world, women are fighting with their lives to take it off and we should care about their freedoms just as much as we care about the women in France.
France is oppressing its citizenry in its paternalistic attempt to liberate them. Muslim women, who often contend with patriarchy in their own cultures should not have to worry about the French state adding to it. If anything, France should encourage Muslim women to use the beach and swim - not discourage them by ushering in archaic laws of dress a la the Islamic republic in Iran. For some, the burka, is an instrument of oppression for women and they cannot fathom the idea that women willingly wear it but that is not what we are discussing here. Ultimately, the discussion comes down to a woman's right to choose what she wants to wear or not to wear. A very basic and fundamental right.
While countries like Canada allow and encourage one's freedom to practice their religion, with the RCMP now allowing Muslim women to wear their head scarves while joining the flagship Canadian law enforcement unit, France continues to scour its beaches for signs of Muslim women covering themselves up too much and Iran surveils its shorelines and waters for women who are not covered enough.
From historical debates on the confines of the corset, to the bra burning protests of the 1970's, women have always fought against the policing of their bodies. Our bodies, in the words of Barbara Kruger, continue to be battlegrounds and if France wants to actually uphold its ideals of freedom and equality it should know that it has no place in the closets of its citizens.
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