Burkini ban a secular step too far…

THOSE of us who wear secular trunks, as it were, should feel uncomfortable about the burkini ban in France. Well, anyone should feel queasy about this ugly display of state power.

But this is especially tricky for the secular among us. You see, a secular state, a state which refuses to be ruled by religion, strikes me as the right sort of state. Yet the trouble comes when secularism turns as intolerant as the religion it aims to contain.

In France there is a strict separation between religion and the state, going back to the revolution. While in theory this is a simple concept, more recently it has been exposed to xenophobia and Islamophobia, and is in danger of being hijacked by the right to their own ends.

All of which seems a long way from banning a certain type of modest bathing suit designed to give women freedom – but being interpreted in France as a garment that denies freedom.

Now a number of French cities, including Nice – where 85 people were massacred on July 14 – have banned the wearing of the burkini. I have never seen one of these garments, but a handy description seems to be that it is a little like a wet-suit, only made of material rather than rubber, and designed to cover the torso, limbs and head.

Women who wear this costume do so on religious grounds and because they feel more comfortable covering their bodies.

And unlike middle-aged men who squeeze their pinking white swollen middles into too-tight Speedos (not me, it’s ages since I went on a beach), these modestly covered women are considered, in some French cities at least, to be committing an offence against the secular state. So much for liberation, equality and fraternity.

Nowadays such stories romp around the world in a dizzy instant, sometimes before any context is known or understood. But really, you don’t need the context to realise that there is something odd and menacing, something so not right, in the reported sight of armed police officers standing on a hot beach and ordering a woman to remove her burkini.

This is wrong on so many levels and seems to be another example of unwarranted control. Certainly the shorthand here is that the state, as represented on that beach by men, is telling women how they can dress by the sea. In some parts of the world sunbathing women are told to cover up and respect local religious traditions; in France women are being ordered to undress to respect local secular traditions. What an odd moral mix-up of values.

In simple terms, women are being told by men (with guns) how they should conduct themselves. So this ends up looking like another lesson in power; and another time when women are being bossed about in relation to their bodies.

Which is unfair on so many levels, not least that Speedo-corseted males surely cause greater offence.

There has been much comment on this story in France and here, too. In France the burkini has prompted a national discussion about Islam and women’s bodies, with Prime Minister Manuel Valls saying the swimsuit reflects a worldview based “on the enslavement of women”. As too, you might think, does officiously bossing innocent women about as they sit on the beach.

A lot of people here picked up on an obvious contradiction that might henceforth been known as the ‘nun clause’. The broadcaster James O’Brien, always a combative pleasure, asked if police would now be asking nuns to remove their habits on the beach. A flippant point but a good one.

Beaches are places for people and people have bodies. Some people of either sex have very nice bodies they wish to show off. Others have bodies they are not so keen on. Or bodies past their best. Or bodies that never had a best. Just, you know, bodies. Functional bags of skin and bones that only step onto a beach with caution.

If someone wants to cover up that should be fine; if someone wishes to wear very little that too should be fine.

In some senses, though, the burkini ban is a distraction from greater social problems – and a headline-stirring grab for attention by a troubled government beset with problems, not least from that right-wing horror Marine Le Pen.

But if you wish to cheer yourself up, you will find lots of photographs on Twitter and the like showing nuns on the beach, romping in the sea or balancing on surf boards.