The summer’s controversy in France surrounding the Mayor of Cannes’ attempts to ban the so-called ‘burkini’, (an unfitting portmanteau, given that the garment in question is neither a burka nor a bikini; but more closely resembles the chador) from public beaches, has once again placed women’s bodies and women’s dress under the scrutiny of lawmakers and at the centre of public debate.
The ban, which was emulated by no less than 30 French towns, has been temporarily suspended by a court ruling (although Corsica is currently defying the suspension). The legal reprieve did not however arrive in time to prevent beach-goers in Nice (and internet users worldwide) from being treated to the spectacle of four armed police officers bearing handguns, batons, and pepper spray, standing over a seated woman and forcing her to strip off her long-sleeved top in order to protect a notion of “public decency” which is chillingly immune to irony. The woman in question was further subjected to racist jeering from bystanders who witnessed the incident; not content with her compliance nor with the humiliating ordeal they had put her through, the authorities penalised her further by imposing a fine.
The “burkini ban” is only the latest in a series of French laws targeted specifically at Muslim women and girls. Between 1994 and 2003, around 100 female students were suspended or expelled from middle and high schools for wearing a hijab in class. Nearly half of these exclusions were later annulled by the French courts. In 2003, despite mass protests, Chirac’s government passed a law banning the wearing of any ‘ostentatious’ religious articles, including the veil, in schools.
Defending the law, Chirac stated that the hijab was ‘a sort of aggression that it is difficult for us [the French] to accept’. A report published the following year found that at least 806 students suffered educational disadvantage as a direct result of the ban. The law does not apply to universities, but women who wear the veil are routinely barred from attending, and current prime minister Manuel Valls has called for the ban to be extended to third-level institutions. In 2010, the Sarkozy government widened this formal discrimination further, passing an extraordinarily far-reaching law prohibiting the concealment of the face in public space.
Those who read the wave of anti-Islamic legislation in France as a knee-jerk reaction to recent jihadist attacks would do well to remember that this is not the first time that the veil has been utilized as an instrument of imperialist propaganda. Recent attacks merely provide a thin political justification for ramping up an existing and entrenched racist policy that has its roots in France’s colonial past. In Algeria in 1958, French authorities staged a stunt in which Algerian Muslim women ceremonially removed their white veils and burned them in supposed defiance of patriarchal culture, to the cheers of Pied Noirs. The ‘liberation’ portrayed by this gesture, which was widely reported in the colonial press, in fact staged the women’s apparent acceptance of colonization.
Both then and now, a shallow “feminism” is marshalled by the authorities in service of a politics that ultimately exists to further entrench elite power, including patriarchal power. The irony is made explicit by the misogynistic overtones of a poster used at the time, which enquired of Algerian women ‘Aren’t you pretty?…Unveil yourself!’ (‘N’etez-vous donc pas jolie? Devoilez-vous!’). In this construction, unveiling is promoted not as a form of feminist self-expression, but rather in an attempt to inculcate and exploit insecurity and self-consciousness in the colonised population through a weaponised concept of ‘beauty’. In a deft move, the veil, richly symbolic of the Algerian and Muslim cultures which produced it, is aligned with ugliness. The woman is called upon to ‘prove’ her beauty by revealing her face to the desiring, implicitly male gaze, the imperative ‘Devoilez!’ baring an edge of threat.
What we see in the transition from the kind of propagandisitic attacks on the veil used in Algeria to the current wave of French legislation is a shift from “persuasive” to overtly coercive tactics. In the controversy over the veil, a demand that is usually made of all women, a demand that is normally conveyed subtly and understood implicitly, has now been made (has had to be made) explicit. The demand that Muslim women show themselves, that their faces and now their bodies be offered up for public consumption, makes visible the face of patriarchal desire, as well as the transgressive power inherent in the decision to withhold such objects from scrutiny.
Beneath the arguments about secularism and ‘security’, what is notable, but rarely noted, about public debate surrounding the veil, and the profound anxiety that it clearly provokes in the ruling class, is the intense eroticism with which the concept is invested. This is not about public order or terrorism; it’s about desire for a fetishized object and the politics of the panopticon. The transposition of the ideological conflict to the arena of the beach underscores the point. According to cultural theorist John Fiske:
Semiotically, the beach can be read as a text, and by text I mean a signifying construct of potential meanings operating on a number of levels. Like all texts, the beach has an author – not, admittedly, a named individual, but a historically determined set of community practices that have produced material objects or signs. By these I mean the beach-side buildings, the changing rooms, the lawns, the esplanades, the vendors’ kiosks, the regulatory notices, the steps and benches, the flags and litter bins – all these items whose foregrounded functional dimensions should not blind us to their signifying ones. Like all texts, beaches have readers. People use beaches to seek out certain kinds of meaning for themselves, meanings that help them come to terms with their off-beach, normal life-style. As with other texts, these meanings are determined partly by the structure of the text itself, partly by the social characteristics and discursive practices of the reader – different people use the beach differently, that is, they find different meanings in it, but there is a core of meanings that all users, from respectable suburban family to long-haired dropout surfer, share to a greater or lesser extent.
The beach functions semiotically in the popular unconscious as a site of play, a space in which the idea of leisure is enacted, in which the codes of dress and labour that normally apply in the city, or in capitalist working life, can be temporarily suspended. This, as well as the confrontation with the ‘natural’, elemental environment, works to imbue the beach with libidinal energy. Its erotic potential is conveyed through the altered dresscode, which also serves to heighten the sensual experience of bodies exposed to the warmth of sun, the touch of sand, and submersion in water. This dresscode has a pragmatic but also a disciplinary dimension. Women especially are conditioned by cosmetics, diet and fashion industries to expect that beaches are places in which their bodies will be subject to particularly intense and cruel scrutiny.
It is a measure of how serious this game, the game of take-your-clothes-off-at-the-beach, and others like it (the game of put-your-face-where-we-can-see-it) are for French patriarchy that the (perceived) refusal of some Muslim women to participate, to engage normatively in the erotic and consumerist play of the beach, is considered sufficiently threatening that it must be sanctioned by law. The presumption that beaches are marketplaces in which women’s bodies must be openly displayed to the male gaze is the euphemistic ‘good custom’ that the Cannes’ ban exists to uphold.
The veil wars pressurize Muslim women to conform to a hegemonic culture in a coercive gesture of ‘integration’ that simultaneously excludes them from the civic body, rendering them subject to laws and customs they are given no say in authoring. In rendering this other, the law establishes it as an object of desire, symbolically invested with all the qualities that the dominant culture lacks, fears, or possesses but cannot acknowledge. The exclusionary gesture is overtly racist, but it is not by accident that it expresses itself through misogyny, just as it is no accident that misogyny works by reducing women to their bodies and to their clothes. We have decided the rules of the beach-game, the authorities insist: the rules are written in stone. If it were simply a question of what we should wear to the beach, we might shrug it off. But when the same logic is applied to the game of being-French, or the game of being-human, we must raise our voices and lower our veils to tell a different story.