14 September 2016

Burkini Blowback II: Laicity and the American Left

Katha Pollitt, The Nation's resident feminist, is opposed to France's ban on the burkini, that throwback to 19th century beach fashion adopted by devout Muslim women. She takes her stand while deploring Islam's sexist modesty code. "If covering is just about faith, why don’t men do it too?" she asks. She recognizes the ban as consistent with France's longstanding policy of laïcité, which she defines with reasonable accuracy as "the rigorous denial of a public role for religion." Such a policy, she recognizes also, can be a good thing, compared with the apparent porousness of the First Amendment.

In France, for example, the Catholic Church doesn’t control one-sixth of all hospital beds and use government funds to deny women modern reproductive-health care. Public schools do not bring in religious zealots to lecture the students on the evils of birth control. You won’t find creationist propaganda in the bookstore at a national park.

Banning the burkini, however, strikes Pollitt as laïcité in overreach. It becomes apparent upon reading her column on the topic that she doesn't like the premise on which the ban is founded, that women wearing the burkini -- or other conservative forms of Islamic dress -- are victims who have no will or agency of their own. She rejects the idea that Muslim women would only wear such things because their fathers and brothers force them to. She finds it telling that, to her knowledge, there are no regulations in France against Islamic male fashions like long beards or cloth skullcaps. That makes her suspect that regulations against Islamic female fashions are less about stigmatizing Islam than they are about stigmatizing (or fetishizing) Muslim women. From her perspective, the burkini debate pits two forms of sexism against each other, both denying women the right to dress as they please.

The prime minister of France justifies the burkini ban by observing that “The burkini is not a new swimwear fashion; it’s the transmission of a political project, against society, founded notably upon the subjection of women. Some people try to portray those who wear them as victims, as though we were calling liberty into question." Pollitt is one of those people, despite her apparent belief that Islam often does subjugate women. She criticizes the burkini ban from what I'd call a unique (if not exceptional!) American perspective that would reject French-style laïcité despite its sometime favorable features.There's a coercive element to French secularism that Americans are unlikely to consider either desirable or necessary. That's because the typical American assumption is that people have the right to be whatever they want to be -- a further assumption being that what we want to be is what we're meant to be. These assumptions are implicitly conditional upon your right to be not interfering with others' rights, but liberal Americans, at least, will assume further still that for every cultural choice there is a way to be that choice that is certain not to interfere with others' right to be themselves. American conservatives, by comparison, are more concerned with the right to do than the right to be, but they're another story. By a more relevant comparison, France's divergent revolutionary heritage is less likely to take this right to be (on one's own terms, that is) for granted. From the Jacobins forward, in a tradition extending beyond France and beyond Europe, there has been an assumption that a citizen is something you must become, not something you can just be. Citizenship requires conscious shaping of the citizen through educational and cultural institutions, in a manner at odds with American notions of individual autonomy and "self-made" people, that can be perceived by Americans as on the slippery slope to totalitarianism. American liberals (or progressives) want a world in which any woman who wears a burkini is given the benefit of the doubt on questions of independence, agency and loyalty, just as other forms of personal expression are. Whether such a world is possible remains subject to debate, but it can't be denied that it has seemed less possible in recent years. The yearning for such a world is typically American. Many Americans, whether they think of themselves as left or right, imagine that Utopia will become real if we're all just allowed to be ourselves and do our own thing. Both the American left and the American right differ from their counterparts around the world in their individualist biases, despite the left's alleged collectivism. But there are small signs, or perhaps only hints, that Americans are growing less divergent, so that the demands France makes of its people may seem progressively less strange and unacceptable in the years to come, despite the protests of individualists on both right and left.


Anonymous said...

It becomes apparent upon reading her column on the topic that she doesn't like the premise on which the ban is founded, that women wearing the burkini -- or other conservative forms of Islamic dress -- are victims who have no will or agency of their own.

And yet that is exactly what it is. Islam means "submission", which means not a single devout muslim has any free will. That may or may not be a personal choice, but it is a fact.

Samuel Wilson said...

Slavoj Zizek has had interesting things to say about western liberals' inability to comprehend how a person can, in effect, choose to have no choice, so that no matter how free from outside pressure the person may be, she still doesn't perceive it as a free choice the way Pollitt imagines it to be.