The Freedom of a Burkini

This post was drafted, but not completed, last night, before France’s highest administrative court overturned the ban on burkinis.

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The debate in Europe regarding the acceptability of the burkini, full-body water-friendly attire, on beaches has reached the United States.  Articles attempting to explain the burkini, as well as the historical reasons for its ban, are prevalent.  The reason for the burkini debate requires an understanding of cultural and religious norms, as well as historical and current laws, in France and across Europe, as well as throughout Muslim countries and communities.  I have no such bona fides.

I write because the burkini brouhaha engenders feminist irony.

In Turkey, traditional Muslim women have long argued that wearing what they want on their heads is a fundamental human right. Feminists and secularists counter that the head scarf is a symbol of women’s subjection to men, and of Mr. Erdogan’s project to restore the country’s Islamic identity

The Multifaceted ‘Burkini’ Debate, The New York Times (Aug. 22, 2016).

Women who want to go to the beach, should be permitted to wear whatever clothing they chose, so long as it comports with dress codes and notions of decency.  There is no need to place the word “Muslim” at the beginning of the sentence, just like there is no need to place the word “Jewish” or “Black” at the beginning of the sentence.

I am for women.  All women.  If I want to cover my body at the beach, be it because I’m a nun or seek to avoid a severe reaction to sun exposure, I should be able to.  Indeed, many women in Okinawa are covered from head to ankles at the beach to avoid sun exposure.  My position should come as no surprise.  Indeed, if women want to engage in the sex trade, they should be free to do so, so long as she is doing so of her own free will.

There’s the rub.  If a woman wants to engage in sex industry, she must be able to do so without fear of physical or emotional harm.  She should be able to dictate when, who, where, and under what circumstances she wants to work.  But that is stating the obvious.  But is a woman who was sexually abused as child, engaged in sex work of her own free will?  Is a poor women seeking to provide her children with food and clothing, working in the sex trade of her own free will?  There is no easy answer.

If a woman wears a burkini because that allows her to enjoy a day at the beach, who are we–as women–to object?  Indeed, if she is unable to enjoy the beach without full covering, the feminist argument–that she should not be allowed to fully cover her body because such a dress code demonstrates subjugation to men–puts that woman in a worse off position.

The balancing of individual rights with public policy is never simple.  But for the feminist, the answer should be clear.  Women should be given the right to choose what is in their best interest.  If my religion dictates I cover my body, no one should tell me to do otherwise.  Just as if my religion dictates I refuse alcohol.


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