Ban the Burkini?

(This is one of the ten most read articles  in 2016 of the Project Syndicate)

MELBOURNE – My parents came to Australia as refugees, fleeing Nazi persecution after Hitler annexed Austria. They arrived in a country eager to assimilate immigrants into its dominant Anglo-Irish culture. When my parents spoke German on a tram, they were told: “We speak English here!”

Assimilation of that kind has long disappeared from Australian government policy, replaced by a largely successful form of multiculturalism that encourages immigrants to retain their distinct traditions and languages. The “burkini” – a swimsuit that covers the body from the top of the head to the feet, though not the face – is one aspect of that multiculturalism. It was invented by a Muslim woman in Sydney to enable observant Muslim girls to join their school friends and other children in the beach activities that are an important part of Australian summers.

Australians find it hard to fathom why some French seaside towns should seek to ban the burkini. Without swimming costumes that comply with their religious beliefs, observant families would not permit their girls to go to the beach. That would reinforce, rather than reduce, ethnic and religious divides.

The burkini bans in France (some of which have since been overturned by courts) follow other French restrictions on clothing and ornamentation. Students in public schools cannot wear conspicuous religious symbols, which is usually interpreted to prohibit the headscarves worn by Islamic women, as well as the yarmulkes (skullcaps) worn by Jewish boys and large crosses worn by Christians. A full face veil – a burqa or niqab – cannot legally be worn anywhere in public.

France is often seen as a special case, because of its long history of strict separation of church and state. But last month, Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, proposed banning the burqa from public places such as government offices, schools, universities, and courtrooms, raising the possibility of such prohibitions spreading beyond France. It is, de Maizière said, “an integration issue,” and Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, agreed: “From my point of view, a woman who is entirely veiled has hardly any chance at integrating.”

The pendulum is therefore swinging back toward assimilation, and the key question is how far that swing should go. Should a country that accepts immigrants also allow them to retain all their cultural and religious practices, even those that are contrary to values that most of the country’s people consider central to their own way of life?

The right to cultural or religious practice cannot be absolute. At a minimum, that right reaches its limit when such practices may harm others. For example, children must be educated, and even if the state permits home schooling, it is entitled to set standards regarding the knowledge and skills that must be taught. In extreme cases, like forms of female genital mutilation intended to reduce sexual pleasure, almost no one supports allowing immigrants to adhere to tradition in their new country.

In France, it has been argued that allowing burkinis to be worn on beaches tacitly endorses the repression of women. To require women to cover their heads, arms, and legs when men are not similarly required is a form of discrimination. But where are we to draw a line between the widely, if not universally, accepted requirement that women must cover their breasts (also not required of men), and the greater degree of coverage of the female body required by several religions, including Islam?

It is also dubious that integration is best served by banning religious dress in public schools. At least as long as private religious schools are permitted, this is likely to cause observant Muslims and Jews to send their children to private schools. If we really want a secular, integrated society, there is an argument for requiring every child to attend a public school; but in most Western societies, that argument has been lost.

If a society is to be more than a collection of discrete individuals or groups living within common territorial boundaries, we can reasonably want a degree of integration that enables people to mix and work together. We should reject cultural relativism – the example of female genital mutilation is enough to show that not all cultural practices are defensible. A society is justified in saying to immigrants: “You are welcome here, and we encourage you to preserve and promote many aspects of your culture, but there are some core values that you must accept.”

The difficult question is to determine what these core values should be. Not harming others is a minimum, but racial and sexual equality should also be part of the core. That becomes tricky when women themselves accept restricted opportunities because of their religious beliefs. They may be the victims of a repressive ideology, but Islam is not the only religion that teaches, in at least some of its forms, that women’s role in life is different from that of men.

John Stuart Mill, the great nineteenth-century liberal, thought that society should use criminal law only to prevent harm to others, but he did not think that the state had to be neutral vis-à-vis different cultures. On the contrary, he thought society has, and should use, the many means of education and persuasion available to it, in order to counter false beliefs and encourage people to find the best forms of living.

Mill would argue that if we allow sufficient time for immigrants to be exposed to the influences of education and proximity to different ways of life, they will make good choices. Given how little confidence we can have in other options, that path remains worth trying.


3 replies

  1. (I think Project Syndicate permits us to publish their full articles, provided we state clearly the source)

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  2. Sir we have to fight terrorism shall we send air force to bomb isis ? no .shall we send aid to the rebels ? no shall we decrease number of immigrants ? no . what shall we do sir ? BAN BURKINI . It’s part of western society who can’t seem to stop objectifying women. Look around its everywhere. U get paid more to take ur clothes off, and fined for wearing more clothes.

    The French government needs to stop these bans. Personally as an atheist I do not see the need for people to wear clothes in accordance to religious beliefs. I do respect their right to do this if they so choose, in the grand scheme of things wearing a burkini is not that important and will not bring down the French state. The French government is doing exactly what ISIS and the other terrorist groups want. They want the French government to segregate and discriminate against Muslims, to create a us and them society. Well done France, bowing to terrorism. I thought burkinis were about modesty. I don’t believe women want to be liberated by being forced to get their breasts out or their bodies on display. The thing isn’t all that different from a wetsuit. It also protects women who must be shielded from the sun from sunburn, allowing them to enjoy the beach,

    Long before France attempted to colonise parts of Africa and the Middle East, there was a battle, in 732, at Tours, when an Islamic army, led by Abdul Rahman, tried to colonise all of France, and to force every French person to convert. The French drove them back to Spain, with much bloodshed. So, naturally, they have a reasonable amount of distrust for anything Muslim. After the battle of Tours, France was “ruled” for 1,000 years or so by the Church of Rome, and the “aristocracy”, until the revolution of 1793, when the people decided that no religion or royalty would ever hold sway over the elected government. That`s it, and the laughable attempts by Islamists to justify dress codes mandated by their “prophets”, is just, laughable. Thank you. Banning the Burkini by the French govt. is not the issue but telling me that France is a secular country after the banning of the burkini is the big issue. This is hypocrisy and we know it.

    European immigrants to Australia, New Zealand, Canada or even the USA did that they took their religion, culture, language and customs with them and then forced the indigenous people to behave like them!! The French government is doing exactly what ISIS and the other terrorist groups want. They want the French government to segregate and discriminate against Muslims, to create a us and them society. Well done France, bowing to terrorism. How many attacks were carried out by French Muslim women in burkinis?

    Women should be allowed to wear WHATEVER THEY WANT on the beach. Whether that be a bikini, a swimming costume, a skirt, leggings, a dress, pyjamas, trousers, a jacket, a coat, a jumper, a hoody, a burkini! It’s their body so should be their choice whether to strip off or cover up. The West is fast becoming very oppressive and hypocritically doing the very thing it’s accusing other nations of. Whatever happened to tolerance, acceptance, equality and freedom? Leave innocent people alone. Fed up of this nonsense. I think forcing the woman to take off her clothes was wrong. A bit like forcing a Sikh to remove his turban. They should have explained the new law to her and given her a chance to leave the beach, or just face a fine. I am wondering how this law could be implemented in Australia as stinger suits and wet suits are not dissimilar to burkinis. Will they be outlawed too?

    I’ve literally just got back from a week in Dubai. I saw women in bikinis and short summer dresses everywhere. Nobody got punished. Women wore what they wanted. Bikinis are allowed. The same applies to the rest of the United Arab Emirates and most other Muslim countries too – Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia etc. To learn abut Islamic countries, visit them like I just have. Learn the truth as the media just brainwashes people with lies.

    This is probably where France has completely lost their own argument. I understand that France has been through horrible things recently but doesn’t give them the right to send armed men to force a women to undress. There is certainly something morally reprehensible about 4 police officers telling a woman to remove her clothing and humiliating her like that in public, especially when this woman was minding her own business and was not hurting anyone.

    Societies which force people to dress a certain way cannot call themselves ‘democratic.’ This burkini ban claims to protect “secularism” and ban “beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation.” My question: do you think someone wearing beach clothes decorated in Jewish religious themes would face the same fine and treatment? What a low hypocrite and disgusting country. No wonder why France is becoming almost a poor country and having millions of its own citizens immigrating to England, USA, Dubai, Canada seeking a better life.

    Should we start dressing down anyone wearing a nighty and a shower cap because of “national security” This isn’t a law that targets criminals, or terrorists. This is a by-law that targets Muslims for not wanting to show skin. Which is ridiculous. If tomorrow in any country someone said “white people cant wear trench coats” because of the amount of American mass shooters who have worn one would be met with complete anarchy.
    There is a thousand and one other outfits from different cultures that similarly represent the Burkini. This is state sponsored racism. No one seems to have a problem with Sikhs wearing turbans and rightfully so… You see this is borderline apartheid on the grounds of “national security” and “protecting western values” when in reality it’s just a way of segregating and disenfranchising those who are ‘different’ from us.

    They have no problems with Sikhs, Jews, Buda’s etc… When it comes to Muslims, yes everybody is against them! Com’on guys those are not our values, we were not raised like this, at least not in the US… We should all condemn these stupidities which divide us more than anything else and give terrorists more ground to recruit other ignorant people. This is really what the terrorists wants and the French are doing exactly what they want to segregate those Muslims and make them feel the society don’t want them although those ladies weren’t terrorist. This is how the terrorist wants and the French are doing exactly. Congrats and now many of those who got fined eventually will feel ashamed that society cant accept them for who they are… thus what do u think these people would do? God knows how they feel.. and just so u people know that many Muslims themselves are targets of terrorist too.

    West must learn to respect and tolerate those who are different. Discrimination against Muslim practices, such as France’s recent stance against the burkini, can have the opposite of the intended impact. In making Muslim communities feel threatened and under siege, discriminatory policies can make the narrative of extremists that the West is at war with Islam that much more appealing.

    Muslims are not embracing western life’. What do we do? In our free time us English go down the pubs and get smashed, do the same in clubs, sleep with random people and as a result have the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe. Can anybody please tell me what integration means? other then speak English!!! The Jews did their best to integrate in Germany. They even took German names! Look how far it got them. If the Muslims try to integrate, the Germans/British will complain about the ‘pollution’ of their identity once again. I wonder how many English people were saying “Multi-Culturalism does not work” when they were busy invading and taking over other people’s countries!? India, the Africa, the Americas, Australia, to name but a few. I wonder how many English people are saying “Multi Culturalism does not work” when they are busy sunning themselves in the south of Spain, speaking only English, eating in English restaurants, drinking in English bars, and complaining that not all Spaniards speak English!? Monkey see? Monkey do? And what is English culture, anyhow!? Our football teams are full of foreign players and some are owned by foreign owners, Christian Church attendance has dwindled, we love our curries (influenced by Indian food), we holiday abroad often…so I really would like somebody to define to me what is English culture, these days. If you mean by integration going down to the pub with the lads, getting drunk, picking up a few girls, and then on Sunday maybe going to church – then I’m sure that Muslims will not integrate.

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