France’s burkini ban exposes how women are still violently oppressed in the name of nationalism

What about after the cameras go away?
What about after the cameras go away?
Image: Reuters/Neil Hall
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As women, what’s the difference between a state that mandates we cover our bodies and one that mandates we uncover them? Virtually nothing.

Last week, police officers on a beach in Nice stood over a woman wearing a loose long-sleeved blouse, leggings, and a head scarf. With the force of law behind them, the officers demanded that she remove her coverings–right there on the sand.

The moment reinforced what intersectional feminists have long argued: there is virtually no difference between a state that demands women cover their bodies and a state that tries to deny them that right. What the woman was wearing is not really the point. Plenty of people choose to cover up at the beach–sometimes because of religious reasons, and sometimes because they don’t want to get sunburned. What she was wearing is really only relevant in the context of what she symbolizes culturally: the state’s ability and willingness to publicly subsume a woman’s rights and autonomy.

In the midst of global controversy, France’s top administrative court suspended the so-called burkini ban on Aug. 26. But this is hardly the first time, nor will it be the last, that the regulation of a woman’s appearance has been defined by nationalist and cultural objectives. The burkini ban was not, despite what some French officials have attempted to argue, about protecting secularism. Nor was it about liberating of women from their “oppressive” veils. Patriarchal cultures have always tried to control the way that girls and women dress, from the beach to the classroom.

The historically male-dominated and male-defined nation-state has an important role to play in systemic gender inequality. Indeed, there are a number of ways in which the very structure of the nation-state attempts to position women not as citizens but as resources for men to organize, control, and allocate. For example, around the world, young people are taught to think of their nations as women and of women as symbols for those nations—we talk about the motherland, we build statues dedicated to “Lady Liberty.” Not coincidentally nations, like women, can be conquered or protected. Men fight on their behalves, defend their honor and use them as pawns in order to attain more power. In “God Bless America” Americans sing that they hope God will “Stand beside her, and guide her.” This is a country that continues to predicate social and economic policy on paternalistic notions of the ideal male worker.

Along the same lines, immigration policy—which shapes nations—has long been influenced by patriarchal attitudes about gender. In the US, a study conducted in 2013 by the Immigration Policy Center found that “immigrant women are often presumed to be ‘dependents’ while men are looked at as the primary breadwinners, which results in women and men having different experiences when they go through the legalization process,” according to Griseld Nevarez at Voxxi. Meanwhile, women attempting to attain US protection from abusive spouses are likely to encounter more obstacles than male immigrants seeking asylum due to abuse by police or government agents.

Some of the most provocative and nuanced feminist scholarship of the past twenty years has studied these types of issues—and their violent effects. Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval Davis’ insightful categorization of the relationship between nationalism and women seems particularly relevant to the current debate. Women, according to Anthias and Davis, are expected to be biological bearers of children for the nation; symbols of national identity; transmitters of cultural norms; active members of state governance; or, lastly, reproducers of the boundaries of the nation. On the beach in Nice, a woman was made into a boundary of a nation.

The most extreme examples of this idea—of women embodying boundaries and borders—usually involve rape. During conflicts, rape is often an expression of national or proto-national identity. It represents one community using women’s bodies to send a message and to destroy the social fabric of another man’s community.

It’s hard to overstate the harmful consequences of thinking about and treating women as symbols, avatars, and figureheads for nations that trade in violence, exploitation, and domination. This is not to say that there aren’t women political actors actively engaged in statecraft, but only to clarify that our notions of what constitutes “states” is based is thoroughly based on women’s dehumanization in a system optimized for men’s needs, experiences, and rights.

All of this is why there is no difference, ultimately, between a state that demands women cover up and a state that refuses to allow them to do so. Either way, the world’s overwhelmingly leaders are attempting control what women do. This remains true in the United States, a nation that is on the cusp of electing its first woman head of state, yet still ranks 96th in the world for women’s legislative representation.

Many people in the West are blithely unaware that feminism and women’s rights are not foreign exports. There are indigenous feminist movements everywhere, including, vibrantly, in the Middle East, where that very idea—the conflation of feminism with the colonialist, imperialist West—has done tremendous harm.

Two weeks ago, for example, millions of people shared a photograph of two women, one from Egypt and one from Germany, playing volleyball at the Olympics.

The woman on the left, Egyptian Olympian Doaa Elghobashy, chose to wear a hijab as well as full body spandex. Others on her team, given similar flexibility, did not. The athlete on the right, Kira Walkenhorst, is wearing her German uniform of a bikini.

“Which vision for women do you want?” asked a man in a tweet that was shared hundreds of times. “One where women are empowered or suppressed. East versus West. Choose correctly.” His entire equation, unconsciously predicated on the notion of the male gaze, ignores what the women themselves might want. This perspective is both sexually objectifying and dehumanizing.

Put another way, Quartz’s Annalisa Merelli noted that “on its face, the image seems less illustrative of a massive divide than of a strong commonality. For different reasons, both hijab and a bikini tend to provoke problematic stereotypes of women—an assumption of religious imposition on one side, and one of willing sexual objectification on the other. In this picture, however, these very misconceptions make the garments strong symbols of empowerment.”

In the early 20th century, morality police patrolled US beaches, enforcing skirt lengths and removing women rebellious enough to show a little clavicle or thigh. Then, as now, women were told the regulations were for their own good, to protect their virtue and the virtue of those around them. But despite the topical similarities, the forced unveiling of Muslim women is not the same. As Mahroh Jahangiri wrote for Feministing: “These comparisons miss a very significant point: the unveiling of Muslim women has been part and parcel of broader imperial efforts to destroy Muslim communities. This isn’t just about patriarchy, people—this is also about racism and imperialism. Neither of which white girls in tiny bikinis have ever had to face.”

The cultural issues that we face today, in the wake of centuries of colonialism, racism, religious fundamentalism and globalization, are complex. But no matter what you believe, two armed policemen demanding a woman publicly strip is neither liberating nor conducive to public safety. The truth is that women will only be able to wear what they want when we change the fundamental relationships binding the fates of women to the fate of the state.