There have been recent attacks on women’s bodies in France. And earlier this week, armed French police approached a woman dressed in a headscarf, blue long-sleeved shirt, and leggings on the beach and issued her a fine for violating the controversial band on the burkini (swimsuit that covers the whole body). Startling images surfaced in Nice showing four police officers hovering over a woman, who was simply relaxing on the beach. The woman, after seeing the armed guards approaching, quickly took off her blue tunic to placate the police officers. She was issued on-the-spot fine, as discussed in the Guardian.
This shocking incident happened alongside a report of a mother being fined for wearing a similar outfit in another town in France. “I was sitting on a beach with my family,” the young woman discussed in Guardian. “I was wearing a classic headscarf. I had no intention of swimming.” Her cousin most likely deeply saddened and humiliated said, “The saddest thing was that people were shouting ‘go home’, some were applauding the police. Her daughter was crying.”
The woman’s ticket claimed she was not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.”
As I tackle my own dismay over the incident, I uncover the irony that in our modern times, women are now being forced by armed officers to take off their clothes. Women have fought for centuries to wear revealing bathing suits and were criticized for not displaying “good morals.” And now the situation has shifted with women struggling for the right to modesty. While the target of the laws has changed, the intent has not; women are being subjected to laws that control their outfits and bodies.
Some officials have reasoned that bans on burqas and burkinis are designed to liberate women. The veil is seen as a tool of oppression, a byproduct on Islamic extremism, and limits women’s mobility. Frank Henkel, the Interior Minister of the city of Berlin, claimed the full-face veil “does not fit in with our view of women.” Similarly, the French Ambassador to the United States, Gerard Araud, has argued previously that burqas suggest that women are an “object of lust, a subject and not an agent of history,” as discussed in CNN.
The veil to an outsider may seem uncomfortable and oppressive, but how a woman dresses her body is a personal choice. Shereen El Feki, author of Sex and Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World agrees. She told CNN,“I find it ironic that the argument that is often made against the hijab, ‘Oh the poor women, we must liberate them’, that assumption is quite oppressive. Because you’re assuming that these women have not made a choice, that they’re incapable of making a choice.”
Yet, the recent incidents forcing women to derobe are about much more than policing women’s bodies. These clothing bans are deeply engrained in Islamophobia. Columnist Malik says laws against burqas “suggest that it is not out of concern for women, but out of a desire to shrink the space within which Muslims can dress, live and practice freely in Europe, ” via CNN. These bans are an attack against religious freedom and only going to further exacerbate tensions in France.
Sara Silvestri, a professor at City University London, is worried about the negative implications of these laws. “The effect of these laws is that Muslims feel marginalized and in turn, the feeling of being unwelcome impacts their ability and willingness to integrate into society, can cause withdrawal and lead to engagement with radical groups,” she told CNN.
What we are seeing happening in France is an identity crisis as France struggles to define what it means to be French in a changing world. “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, in the New York Times.
And at the center of this identity crisis are easy targets: women’s bodies.
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