Centuries of patriarchal history were captured in this week’s pictures of policemen on the beach in Nice, France, forcing a woman to take off her shirt and headscarf to comply with the so-called “burkini ban.”
Across countries and cultures, women have been seen as offensive for showing their ankles, necks, faces, hair, arms, legs—or, in turn, for failing to do so. Shaving is immoral. Not shaving is dirty. Wearing make-up is immodest. Not wearing it is sloppy. High heels are provocative. Flat shoes are unprofessional.
In the 1920s, US law required women to wear a full bathing suit—and a record-breaking swimmer was arrested for showing her knees on the beach. A century later, a full bathing suit got a Muslim woman in Cannes fined; the ticket she was given literally said her outfit was not respectful of “bonnes moeurs,” good morals.
Men, or societies, that force women to undress are no better than or different from those that force them to cover up. What freedom or progress is there in armed men demanding that a woman take off her clothes? This wasn’t about protecting France’s secularism; it was about a man’s right to police a woman’s body—still.
Naturally, there was Islamophobia at the core of this, too. Nuns, Orthodox Jewish women, and surfers were not fined. But before a court overturned the ban, its apologists resorted to absurdities to justify it: Nice’s deputy mayor Rudy Salles told the BBC that even Catholic nuns shouldn’t be allowed to wear their habits on the beach.
The message is clear: no woman’s right is sacred enough to get in the way. Even as women might be just about to run the world, their bodies are still the easiest battlefield, their freedom still the first casualty.
This was published in the weekend edition of the Quartz daily brief. To get the daily brief in your inbox six days a week, tailored for morning delivery in Asia, Europe and Africa, or the Americas, sign up here.