Burkini Bans and Cultural Relativism | Vol. 3 / No. 43.5

Photo: Bruno Sanchez-Adrade Nuño, CC BY 2.0
One of the tough aspects of global feminism, and one of the reasons my own intersectional feminism occasionally isn’t as good as it should be, is the idea of cultural relativism. For those who aren’t totally up on their 19th/20th century anthropology, cultural relativism basically states that when we are judging someone’s beliefs or actions we should be doing so in the context of that person’s culture. It’s what people are implicitly doing when they say that Paula Deen grew up in a “different time.” Now, like pretty much everything ever, there are good ways and bad ways to use cultural relativism. A bad way to use it is to say something along the lines of “Well in that culture, men are considered superior, so we shouldn’t call this person out for being rude to a woman.” A good way to use it is to say something like “Hey, maybe we should think twice before we force a woman to disrobe in a public place because we don’t like her religion.”
The place where my feminism and my attempt to consider cultural relativism comes to a confusing point is when I try to mentally separate What is Objectively Bad from What I Think May Be Bad Because I Was Raised in a Different Culture. For example, Female Genital Mutilation is, in my opinion (and the opinion of the World Health Organization) just an objectively terrible thing. It has no health benefits. It has multiple health risks. And while it is performed for a variety of cultural and (incorrectly ascribed) religious reasons, I refuse to believe that any of these reasons justify the practice. In the same way that I would not accept anyone practicing slavery just because it was considered culturally acceptable, I don’t accept anyone performing FGM for any reason.
But when we get to things like the burqa, I start to get more conflicted. I have to start chanting “cultural relativism” three times underneath my breath, hoping that it will magically appear for me. Like Beetlejuice. For those of you who aren’t totally clear on the differences between the different types of body coverings (there will be a test later) Adam Taylor gives a quick primer: 
(This is also different from the hijab, which is usually a headscarf that leaves the face clear. So in some ways the “burkini” is actually a mix between a burqa and a hijab, in that it is a full-body covering but the head portion leaves the face clear.) No matter what version is being worn, people have been bound and determined to let their pearl clutching become actual bigotry, for example using the “plight of Muslim women” to justify invasions into Muslim countries. I’m at least not that bad. To give myself a tiny bit of credit, I have roughly the same problem with any religious or cultural fashion dictate that I do with the burqa. It seems like the words “modesty” and “slutty” are both wielded against women to equal detriment. Ironically, the wearing of the burqa falls into the same mental category for me as the decision to do pornography. In both cases, I believe that women are largely making their own decisions, and I support said decisions. But I also worry in both cases that their decisions are influenced by a patriarchal culture, and that their choices, willing or not, are helping to perpetuate a system of oppression and male control over female bodies. Choices don’t take place in a vacuum. But the important thing to remember is: my worries don’t mean jack. I can express my concerns (and risk being labeled a “concern troll”) but that is it. You know why?
Because it is not my goddamn body.
That’s the lesson that seems to have escaped the French police, and French politicians in general. They don’t seem to see the irony in decrying the burqa as a sign of oppression and patriarchal culture (in the words of Prime Minister Manuel Valls, the burkini is representative of ‘“the enslavement of women”‘) and then following that up by telling women what they can and cannot wear. They have become the thing they despise. They just don’t seem to recognize that yet. People have drawn poignant comparisons between the burkini fracas and the early days of women’s swimsuits, when police measured the length of women’s swimming suits to make sure they weren’t scandalous. The game hasn’t changed in 100 years; just the rules. They’ve also pointed out the ridiculous contradictions in banning the burkini and allowing scuba suits, seeing as they cover roughly the same amount of flesh. But because the burkini is linked to Islam (except for the fact that 40 percent of women who are buying the Burkini are not Muslim) the burkini is banned (though not technically actually illegal), and the French police must “save” women from religious oppression by forcing them to remove their clothing. I’m sure Muslim women feel liberated already.
France’s anti-religious sentiment has entered what I call “The Richard Dawkins Zone.” That’s what happens when you start with what seems like a generally good idea or benign position, (“our country should emphasize secularity rather than a single religious perspective” or “we should believe in science more and emphasize critical thinking”) and then take a deep, deep dive into being a clusterfuck of stupidity and bigotry (“we should ban all religious symbols and/or clothing” “Because women in other countries suffer worse than most Western feminist activists, Western feminist activists should shut up”). By entering “The Richard Dawkins Zone,” France has taken a position that I initially sympathized with and made it a terrible thing that means that I have to be on the side of the fence arguing against secularism. Do you know how weird that makes me feel?
Among other things that are wrong with France’s religious policies are the fact that they seem to be aimed at a relatively small portion of the population (thus essentially becoming discrimination against minorities), the fact that they seem to have the opposite effect of what they intended, and the fact that jihadist groups are using their policies to justify attacks. Just… no, guys.
France and its citizens seem frighteningly committed to their body-policing, religion-shaming policies. A Muslim group in France had to cancel a “burkini party” that had the sole intention of letting women swim in a community area while wearing burkinis and not getting attacked for it after organizers received death threats. 64% of French citizens support the burkini bans even though the French Council of State decided that the mayors who created the bans (at least 15 of them) had no standing to do so. And Laurence Rossignol, who holds the title of France’s Minister for Families, Children, and Women compared women who willingly wear the veil to ‘“negroes who were in favour of slavery”‘ which just…. wow. Wow, Ms. Rossignol. No.
Whether or not you think the French government has its heart in the right place, and whether or not you believe that the burqa is oppressive, you have to be able to see that this is Not the Right Way to go about addressing this. If you want your country to be more secular, you can encourage the teaching of science and secular thought in schools, discourage the influence of religious doctrine on official policies and legislation, tax religious entities the way you would any other organization, and pass laws or support programs to make it easier for women to leave fundamentalist households. You cannot police women’s bodies in the name of “freeing” them. Oppressive patriarchal control is oppressive patriarchal control, whether the patriarch is holding a Quran or a legal decree.

Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not trying to restrain her frustration with certain French opinions, she studies gender in popular culture.


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