The tricky politics of the burkini backlash

There is, of course, some explosively emotional context in France. Native French are being forced to confront the fact that their society has failed to integrate Muslim immigrants to the French way of living. France has suffered two years of Islamist terror incidents, often perpetrated by people who spent much of their lives in France. To many French, the burkini is seen not as an expression of devotion, but as a gesture of separatism. It indicates a person who looks more toward the Persian Gulf for social cues than to la rive gauche. Almost by instinct, the French reached for terms from feminism to denounce this beachwear. Perhaps in another age, when the fault lines of our politics were on gender and class rather than identity and ethnicity, even American feminists of a more Marxist bent would would have said that a woman who willingly wears this garment is suffering from a false consciousness.

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The burkini ban is emotional for Muslims living in France as well. The burkini was designed as swimwear for Muslim women who want to comport themselves with the modesty requirements that go with the hijab even while they swim. The French feminist critique of the hijab and the burkini may have no resonance with many of the French Muslims who choose to wear them. In the Middle East, this clothing may be part of a uniform that is imposed by society, and it may signal a woman’s conformation to that society’s demands. Psychologically, the social act of wearing the hijab must be different in France. There a hijab can also signify independence and pride. Wearing a hijab in France may say, all at once: I am humble before God, and defiant in the face of social expectations.

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