Nuns at the beach. (Photo credit: Museum of History and Industry, Seattle)
"Burkini" vs "Laïcité" –– Which is Just a Disguise?
Monday, September 10, 2018 • Paris, France
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Yes, I know. This is a conversation that should have happened two years ago, but, I was really surprised to hear an old French friend's opinion — a person who has lived a long time in the U.S., who is a devoted Socialist and who I always thought was as open-minded as me — when she immediately defended the French police's right (?, at the time) to insist a woman wearing a "burkini" on the beach remove it.
This was what started as a simple conversation over dinner in a favorite Chinese restaurant in Le Marais. What sparked the debate, I can't even remember. But it impressed me so much, that instead of writing about a gloriously spent Sunday afternoon at the Canal Saint-Martin, I'm expressing my confused and conflictual feelings here to test your own opinions.
I was in Nice just after the July 14th, 2016 terrorist attack on the Promenade des Anglais when wearing a burkini became intensely unpopular. You may recall the controversy at the time, because while the modest swim wear was banned on more than 30 coastal towns on the French Riviera that summer, later the country’s supreme court determined they had no right to tell French people what they could and could not wear to the beach.
While the police were forcing these modest women to remove their full-body swim suits, an extremely obese woman sunbathed topless, her folds of flesh covering the itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny bikini bottom to the point of obscurity. She was at one end of the "plage." On the other end was a 90ish-year-old painfully thin woman, also topless, whose mammaries hung past her waist. Neither was a very pretty sight, but no one cared, while the modestly dressed women were being ostracized. I wanted so badly to dress these two women in burkinis instead!
The point to our disagreement had to do with the "rights" of the women or of anyone, woman, man or child to dress or do as they like. My friend saw the burkini as a religious symbol and that it shouldn't be allowed for that reason. At the time, so fresh after the attack, the Niçois, as were so many, very sensitive to anything denoting "Muslim," blaming every Muslim for the violent attack that rendered 86 dead and another 458 injured. The feelings were understandable, but for me this is nothing but an expression of Islamophobia — "the dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force.
"My friend used the word "laïque," meaning secular — her argument being that France is a secular country and therefore religious symbols should be left at home, not "flaunted" on the beach.
In August of 2016, SBS, an Australian publication founded on the "belief that all Australians, regardless of geography, age, cultural background or language skills should have access to high quality, independent, culturally-relevant Australian media," posted a list of reasons why even non-Muslim women choose to wear burkinis. The garment was designed, in fact, by an Australian, and about half wearing it aren't doing so as a religious symbol or requirement at all. Skin cancer survivors, breast cancer survivors, and a lot of other health issues have contributed to their popularity.
But, the point was not just about burkinis or religious symbols, but about our rights and freedoms to do and think as we want. Where was the meaning of "secularism" during World War II when Jews were at the heart of prejudice? When they were forced to wear yellow stars on their sleeves? And how is it different?
Our disagreement became heated, mostly because I reacted so strongly to what I considered a very prejudiced viewpoint. She and her old friend with us, who was also French, and had been living a long time in the U.S., agreed with her. They would answer, as they did during our heated discussion, that the Jews were the victims, not the perpetrators, making an excuse for their prejudice against the burkini and the people who support it, blaming an entire religious group for the acts of a few.
This got me to thinking. What if I were to blame all the French for the police who carried out the orders of the Nazis to arrest the Jews and send them to death camps? Lots of people did and still do. What would be their excuse then? Secularism?
I saw the subject so completely differently from my French friends — as an infringement upon the rights of humankind, to express ourselves however we like, as long as we are not hurting anyone else. For me, the two topless women on the beach were offensive, but not hurtful to anyone, and they could do whatever they liked as far as I was concerned. They can think what they want, wear what they want, say what they want, as long as it isn't harmful to others.
I asked her how she would feel if the striped top she was wearing would be considered offensive and outlawed simply because some religious group saw stripes as a potential threat to their society. Our argument went nowhere, but in circles. I was not successful at convincing them to see that their viewpoint was not only narrow, but prejudiced in its own right. They were convinced they were right and there was a clear line between good and bad, but of course, from their point of view of what was good and what was bad.
Then, I wondered if their sentiments mirrored the French in general. If these two women, who were well traveled and cultured felt this way, how many others had their same perspectives? I suspected way too many for my own taste.
Secularism in France took shape for the first time during the French Revolution. Later, in the 19th-century, secularization freed the state from the Catholic Church and created new political and social standards built on republican principles. What I've come to realize is how embedded the principle of separation of church and state is to French society — so much so, that they are willing to believe that imposing someone's religious beliefs on anyone else (even in the form of wearing a burkini) an absolute betrayal of French nationality.
In the U.S., our First Amendment reads "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." and the phrase, "separation of church and state" is a paraphrase from Thomas Jefferson traced back to a letter dated January 1, 1802 addressed to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. But, we all know that religion still plays a huge role in U.S. society and politics. The phrase "In God We Trust" is printed on the reverse of a twenty-dollar bill, on the Flag of Florida and is the official motto as adopted in 1956, replacing "E Pluribus Unum" (one out of many), which was created and adopted in 1782. Just look at Vice President Mike Pence who is an evangelical Catholic who wears his religious beliefs on his sleeve using it to his political advantage.
Yes, there are evildoers who wish to harm others because they don't agree with their ideology. And yes, we must protect and defend ourselves against these evildoers, but are these evildoers a few or a collective force? We could argue that Donald Trump's anti-immigration policies reflect the beliefs of all Americans, but we Americans who don't agree with him know that isn't true. We could argue that the French police during World War II represented all of the French, but we know for a fact that many of the civilian French risked their own lives to save many Jews (only 26% of French Jews were killed compared to Germany's 55%). We could argue that wearing a burkini on a French beach was flaunting their support of terrorist activity, when the truth is very, very different.
And sure, we could hang our prejudiced hats on the word "laïque" and maybe no one would be the wiser. They'd just think we were being "secular," and not disguising our own very prejudiced feelings. So, I asked myself: When are we going to learn that we are all human and that all humans are created equal and that we all have the right to be whomever we are? During this Non-Secular time of year (the Jewish New Year), let us ponder these questions and decide for ourselves what rights we wish for ourselves and for others.
P.S. Join us tomorrow, September 11th, for when Douglas Herbert, France 24, International Affairs Editor, speaks about “On the one hand…On the other hand: False equivalence in the Age of Trump" at Parler Paris Après Midi!
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