Remember that dream where you wake up in a cold sweat because you are naked in public? It is just as horrific when someone is trying to cloak you with so many clothes that you are invisible. You are so sexualised that the mere show of your skin or hair would be claimed responsible for public harm. There are women in many countries that have shed the veil as a symbolic show of liberation.
But regarding the nightmare of being exposed in public, I would imagine that the Muslim woman on a French beach wearing a burkini felt the same terror when she was asked to remove it. Yes, right there and then, amidst the jeers of onlookers and harassers. This act of unclothing her by the police is plain despotic. A Salem witch hunt of sorts of women adorning burkinis who just want to exercise their will regarding how much skin they want to show for whatever reason — cultural oppression, a path to spiritual freedom or just to avoid a sun tan.
Vigilantes in India have been taking violent action against anyone suspected of disrespecting a cow or eating beef. The Modi government is looking the other way and some of its ministers have even applauded the murder of Muslims falsely accused of disrespecting cows. In the Philippines, the government is calling for mass murders of those suspected of being involved in the drug trade. This is a licence to kill with zero oversight and due process. Now wasn’t France the same country that protected secularism so the philosophy of to-each-his-own could be birthed, with the state having no say in individual freedoms? Why is it beginning to increasingly sound like the abovementioned countries with a human rights track record of a machete-armed Boko Haram soldier?
It is a fallacy to think that stripping someone of their sense of dignity is anything short of an attack on liberty, and by extension, even on life. What is a life worth if not lived to its own definition of what is honourable? In a world reeling from terrorism and intolerance, it may seem only logical to lash out at the symbols that define the other. This is perhaps the worst thing to do because it diminishes the one thing that would restore order: trust. These times call for more tolerance, not less. In the French philosopher Voltaire’s own words: What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly — that is the first law of nature.
If there is anyone counting on France to alienate its Muslims, it is the kind of people who carried out the Nice attack. Women’s choice of clothing is not a decision for the collective. Women are not to be sorted or categorised or taxonomised. They are just as varied as rich white males would be, definitely more. Making a choice to tie their hijab with a brooch is not any less empowering as wearing a bikini is an equaliser of the wage gap. These decisions should matter as much to the state as the shoe size a woman chooses to wear. It is bizarre to dictate what beachwear women can wear in France just as it is horrific to flog women for not wearing the burka in Afghanistan. The similarities are eerie: in both cases women are being told to do something to please a patriarchal structure and status quo. Unclothing a woman in her public space is not progressive, it is a denial of her fundamental human rights.
As for deciding whether adorning the veil is progressive or not, this decision should only be for those who have a uterus and define themselves as Muslims. To resolve this debate, or to not resolve it, that fork of evolution needs time and the use of force won’t solve problems. We women ought to be the authors of this script, not the courts. While France’s paranoia is understandable, its chronic fear and loathing of Muslims means that it needs to go back to the French Revolution to understand its most acute lesson: fear never leads to peace, it begets anarchy.