2016 Press Releases

Op-ed: France’s burqini ban

28 Aug 2016
Dr Amanullah De Sondy, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam, Study of Religions, UCC. Photo: Michael McSweeney/ Provision.

The image of a Muslim woman being forced to disrobe her burqini has sent shockwaves around the world with much supportive and dissenting commentary, as Dr Amanullah De Sondy, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam, UCC, discusses.

Sales of burqinis (fully covered swimsuits for Muslim women) have risen by 200% but the ban in Nice has been enforced through on-the-spot fines. The image of a Muslim woman being forced to disrobe her burqini has sent shockwaves around the world with much supportive and dissenting commentary.

France advocates that it is upholding its motto, Liberté, égalité, fraternité yet the clash of cultures, values and modesty has been given an intense spotlight in the last few days. In amongst the horrific terrorist attacks that France has seen recently, the burqini ban has led some to question if this is about countering terrorism toward a more peaceful and inclusive society or just blatent Islamophobia.

In complete contrast, Scottish Police have announced that the Hijab (traditional Muslim women’s veil) has been approved as official uniform in order to recruit more Scottish Muslim women to the force. 

Islamic customs and traditions have always alluded to a ‘modest dress’ in order for the pious to strengthen their commitment and submission to God alone. This requirement is in fact not just for women but for men too. How this is understood and lived varies yet the infatuation with Muslim women’s dress seems to never end. It seems that at the core of the issue is the position of minorities in any country.

The French are feeling betrayed and vulnerable by Muslim minorities and French Muslims are appealing to the sentiments of reason in not painting entire communities with the terrorist brush. It seems, French officials thought this was a good way of ‘assimilating’ Muslims to French society yet there is much to learn from the Scottish response, which focuses on ‘integrating’ communities. One of the hallmarks of my own upbringing in Scotland was that differences were celebrated. 

We don’t all have to be the same and we must accept that Western societies have changed with diversity and colours.

One argument I’ve heard recently is that ‘Muslims needs to follow the rules of the west just as we do when we go to their countries’. There have been many cases of white Westerners getting into trouble for being too amorous at beaches in Dubai or the way Christian minorities are treated in Pakistan but does this pitting one against the other help us build bridges or strengthen our human divide? And if the answer to that is ‘no’ then we must find more inclusive ways forward.

The edges are now ever so blurred.  My ethnic origins are in Pakistan but I was born and raised in Scotland and so I’m often baffled by the binaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’. 

Muslim women covering or not covering are heated debates that Muslims ask throughout the world. My own Mum, who moved to Scotland in the 1960s, told me that modest dress in her Punjabi village in Pakistan meant to wear a colourful, multi-purpose scarf that was loosely placed over the head and often slipped off. Her eyes brightened whilst telling me these stories with a smile on her face. It certainly did not seem oppressive in her case.

I’ve learnt much about being a Muslim woman in patriarchal societies from my Mum’s life. Before joining UCC, I taught at the University of Miami for five years and had an apartment in South Beach’s infamous Ocean Drive. My Mum came to visit once and, being a talented seamstress, had brought her own brown velvet sequined burqini-style swimsuit for the beach.  My sister and I stood dumbstruck when she sauntered off to the beach only to return having had a wonderful time with a couple of topless German tourists she had met.    

Pakistan has no state-sanctioned modest dress code in contrast to places such as Saudi Arabia or Iran where there is a requirement for women to cover in public. Important to note the diverse Islamic customs of all three Islamic countries. It certainly pushes us to re-think those neat boxes we often place Muslims and Islam in to, especially women. 

A recent report on Sky News from Iran challenged my own stereotypes of how society was organised there when the journalist interviewed men and women in a busy shopping mall. Some women wore the head covering tightly and others had improvised to wearing it differently. We need to consider the way in which Muslim women’s bodies are being used and policed in such a way and why?

A cartoon has been circulating on social media which shows a Muslim woman standing between what looks like a French policeman and a Saudi policeman. One is covering her up and the other disrobing her. I often show my students of Islam a documentary that was featured on MTV about Saudi youth titled ‘Resist the Power’. It followed the lives of a group of young Saudi men who wanted to organise a heavy metal rock concert, a young Saudi man on his quest for love and a young Saudi woman who wanted to wear a brightly-coloured scarf on her head as opposed to just black.

It seems that when we look at individual Muslim lives we see so much more colour, as opposed to what we are often led to believe when we look to a nation’s or state political narratives or commentaries.

We live at a time of heightened tension between communities, especially Muslims, and this requires reasoned debate and action focused on countering those who wish to cause harm to individual liberty and freedom for all. In the spirit of such a challenge, I am pleased to announce that I will be leading a discussion here at UCC on ‘Muslim Immigration in Europe: Masculinity, Politics and Law’ on September 23 with Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, UK MP Ochill and South Perthshire and Dr Samia Bano, Islamic Law SOAS; with an opening address from UCC President Dr Michael Murphy.    

At the time of writing France's highest administrative court had suspended a ban on burqini swimsuits, pending a definitive ruling later. The Conseil d'Etat gave the ruling following a request from the League of Human Rights to overturn the burqini ban in the Mediterranean town of Villeneuve-Loubet on the grounds it contravenes civil liberties. Villeneuve-Loubet is just one of around 30 towns which have passed burqini bans.

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