February 23, 2019

When in France…

The little storm in a teacup last week in France — burqini or no burqini? — is emblematic of a much larger, existential question: Should a person be free to choose oppression? 

For the uninitiated, the burqini is similar to a wetsuit but made of lighter material; it covers the whole body, including the head, leaving out only the feet, hands and face. If you’ve ever been to a coed beach in summertime in a Muslim country, you’ve seen the floating tents that bob up and down along the shoreline — women trying to swim or cool off with their clothes and their chador wrapped around them. It’s not very practical, and it may even be unsafe: one’s limbs may get caught in all that fabric, but what’s an observant woman to do? How else is she going to satisfy both her religious duty and her desire to swim?  One alternative is to divide the beach, the way the Islamic government did in Iran — just curtain off sections of the sea and let women bathe in whatever costume they want. The other, it seems, is the burqini. 

The manufacturer says it has sold more than 700,000 of them since 2008. That
must have been one too many for the mayors of some French towns because, earlier this month, more than 20 of them imposed a “temporary” ban on wearing it at a public beach or pool. France’s beaches, they said, are a national treasure, a reflection of a certain way of life — sexy and secular and unabashedly amoral; “the beaches of Bardot and Vadim,” one mayor said. They would not be altered or adulterated by symbols of Islamic encroachment into the French way of life. 

Basically, when in France … 

I should clarify at the outset that France’s highest court swiftly overturned the ban, on grounds that it’s every person’s right to choose what she wears and why. I think most of us would agree that the court took a wise and logical stance, given what a slippery slope it can be to selectively apply the law or protect individual rights. But while my head applauds the decision, I have to admit that my heart is — well, with the mayors. 

I realize it’s none of my business and that I’m being intolerant and judgmental and very un-American in my reaction, but the sight of women covered up in public has always rattled me. I do believe that most ideas fall into the gray zone between right and wrong, but keeping women covered up so men don’t feel tempted isn’t one of them. So my first reaction to news of the burqini ban was, “Good! It’s about time.” 

In 1936, Reza Shah Pahlavi, the father of the fallen Shah, imposed a ban on women wearing any kind of hijab, from the chador to a headscarf or veil. Much has been said over the years about the wisdom of alienating such a large majority of Iranians by taking from them their beloved hijab. Reza Shah should have respected people’s rights to practice their religion any way they want, pundits still say, instituted change slowly and from within, through education and dialogue, given women a choice, appeased the mullahs.  

On that last one — appeasement — I’ll quote Churchill’s “an appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” On the rest of it, I’ll say only, thank God Reza Shah violated observant Muslims’ rights and saved all of us — men and women, Muslim and not — from the tyranny of the hijab. Because no amount of patience or education would have resulted in the mullahs voluntarily loosening their grip on their powerbase. Just as, I fear, no amount of appeasement in France will result in its
radical Muslim leaders willingly giving up their sovereignty by allowing their followers to assimilate into mainstream French culture.

Lest I sound like one of those radical right-wing we’re-going-to-build-a-wall-and-make-Mexico-pay-for-it lunatics, let me say that I recognize a good degree of hypocrisy in my own approach to the subject: Had the mayors of Nice and Cannes announced that Orthodox Jewish women, not Muslims ones, have to give up their standards of modesty in order to enjoy the beach, my response to the news would have been vastly different: alarm, outrage, anger, “it’s happening again” — yes. “There go the anti-Semitic French” — yes. “They’re doing this because they want to appease their Muslim extremist citizens — yes.” “It’s about time” — absolutely not. 

Granted, Orthodox Jewish women don’t wear a chador and/or neghab; most of them are not subject to all the other restrictions that cage observant Muslim women; their numbers are not as great and their values not as hostile to Western ones. Most importantly, their histories could not be more different. For Jews, small censures have usually been precursors to catastrophic assaults.

Still, the rationale behind the covering up is the same. For the Jews, I tell myself, “it’s a personal choice.” For the Muslims, I’m convinced, it’s an assault on civilization. How can I defend this way of thinking? 

I can’t. And I don’t want to. All I can say is, thank God we — and the French — have laws that protect everyone’s rights equally, and that there are courts that uphold those laws and a system that enforces them.

And thank God, too, for the occasional tyrant who, every once in a while, deprives people of their right to choose. 


GINA NAHAI’s most recent novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”